ASEE Prism Magazine
High School goes High Tech
The Voice of Engineering
The Power of One
Teaching Toolbox
ASEE Today
Professional Opportunities - Classifieds
Last Word
Back Issues

High School Goes High Tech

By Tom Hayden

Christopher Linton is in many respects a typical high school senior. He’s into skateboarding, basketball, and video games. He doesn’t care much for dry lectures or his Southern California school’s dress code, especially the prohibition against shorts for boys. But as a member of the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High’s first graduating class to spend four years at the San Diego charter school, the similarities end there. Rather than copying notes in science class, he helped build, program, and test robots during an internship at a military research center. Working with three other students, he’s developing his own video game. But the biggest difference between Linton’s experience with high school and that of other bright, motivated students might just be the most simple: He loves it.

Industry leaders, educational experts and frustrated students all seem to agree that America is simply not doing enough to instruct and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. The complaint has been so common for so long that it’s easy assume that nothing can be done—being bored in high school is simply the price bright students have to pay to get into college. But a growing handful of specialized schools, focused on creative education in math, science, and technology, is proving that high school can be more than just one more hoop for students to jump through on their way to more fulfilling experiences with education, and eventually careers, in scientific and technological fields.

Specialized high schools that cater to students gifted in science and math are nothing new. Among the oldest, Stuyvesant High School in New York celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Started in 1904 as a manual trade school for boys, the lower Manhattan institution gradually turned its focus to math, science, and technology education starting in about 1917, though classes in subjects such as blacksmithing continued for years afterward. The idea expanded, and by the 1980s, prestigious public academies such as Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST) in Alexandria, Va., and the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) in Aurora—both founded in 1985—were offering talented students advanced courses and a wide variety of hands-on projects and internships. Today, the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Science, and Technology (NCSSSMST) boasts some 80-member schools, and dozens more are popping up around the country.

While many of the specialized schools are public institutions, most also get financial and training support from local businesses and research institutes. And it’s not hard to see why. “We have a critical need for an education system that produces scientists and engineers,” says Amy Hughes, director of publications and communications for the college of engineering at the California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo. “But the CSU system is still serving a population that’s remedial in a lot of these areas. That makes it very hard to accept and retain students in engineering.”

In San Diego, High Tech High was founded by local educators and high-tech business leaders—including namesake Gary Jacobs, son of the founder of Qualcomm, and his wife, Jerri-Ann—to help address that need. “The initial conversations were about the workforce development issue,” recalls the school’s associate principal, student affairs, Rebecca Haddock. “Local business and education leaders saw a need for lots of skilled, trained students, and we realized that we had to get them interested earlier.”

Each school has its own entrance requirements and approach to high-tech education, says Cheryl Lindeman, assistant to the NCSSSMST president and a biology teacher at the Central Virginia Governor’s School for Science and Technology (CVGS) in Lynchburg. But all seem to share an emphasis on moving beyond static classroom education and giving their students real-world experience through group projects, field trips, and internships. As the partnership coordinator at CVGS, Lindeman says that “engineers grab at the opportunity” to host students for internships. “They understand that they are where they are today because of their early experiences with tinkering and problem solving,” and they’re happy to share their excitement with interested students. Fields such as chemical and production engineering, she says, are generally very foreign to their students, but “if they get a taste of it and say ‘I like that, I want more,’ it’s much more likely that they’ll think about studying engineering.”

In San Diego, High Tech High is based on a business model, complete with the dress code that Chris Linton would rather do without. The school is based on three “design principles,” Haddock says—personalization, real-world immersion, and common intellectual mission. The typical high school in San Diego has over 2,000 students, Haddock says. High Tech High has 430. “The students don’t fall through the cracks because there are no cracks to fall through.” Students must complete an academic internship, and their experiences in the business world are integrated into their coursework. “The goal,” Haddock says, “is that students never ask ‘why am I studying this?’ ” Institutions and businesses, from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center to hotels and a local news channel have all signed on to host student internships. Education groups such as the Regional Occupational Program and Project Lead the Way lend financial support and guidance to the school.

Students at High Tech High do much of their learning through group projects, and are encouraged to become “managers” of their own education, along with their teachers. An emphasis on team-teaching makes the connections between science and other pursuits explicit. Jay Vavra, HTH’s biotechnology teacher, gives an example. “Metabolism is very hard to teach,” he says. So working with humanities and drama teachers, he devised a particularly engaging—if somewhat grisly—project. First, the students chose a poison, and worked out how it could be used to kill by knocking out a particular metabolic pathway. Then they wrote murder-mystery scripts in humanities class, based on the specific action of their poison and working in realistic crime scene forensic techniques such as DNA fingerprinting, before staging the completed works as plays, puppet shows, and computer animation presentations. Maybe it’s not the sort of hands-on experience parents would chose for their children, but, says Vavra, “the approach shows connections and it helps the students engage in the material, so that they’ll remember what they’ve done forever.”

Next year, Vavra will team up with other science and engineering teachers to offer a new course in bioengineering, developed with other teachers from around the country in an effort organized by Project Lead the Way. The students will learn not just genetic engineering—“mind blowing” on its own, Vavra says, recalling spending his own high school biology courses watching nature documentaries—but related manufacturing and production techniques as well. “So much of biotechnology is focused on engineering,” he says. “The future of teaching science is to integrate between the sciences.”

This approach can take a lot of extra work on the part of teachers. Vavra meets twice a week with his teaching team to exchange ideas and plan joint projects. But there are benefits for the teachers as well, many of whom have come to teaching after careers in academia or industry. “We have incredible freedom,” says Vavra, who holds a Ph.D. in the biological sciences. “And we don’t have to just skim across the standards. I believe that our students have an ideal situation for science education, and I have the most rewarding teaching opportunity of any high school biology teacher in the country.”

A Cut Above

Many specialized secondary schools offer instructional facilities that could put university teaching labs to shame. Lindeman, noting that her biology lab includes two electron microscopes, says that students benefit greatly from hands-on experience with sophisticated technology. Traditional classrooms, even with the best teachers, just can’t provide that kind of experience. She also stresses the importance of student internships with local engineering firms and other partners. “You can’t explain engineering just being in a classroom,” she says. “You have to get into an engineering workplace, you have to touch and feel it to really understand what it is.”

If the goal of specialized high schools is to prepare students for challenging college majors and careers in science and engineering, what happens to them once they leave secondary school? Jay Thomas, now an education researcher at Aurora University in Illinois, helped NCSSSMST conduct follow-up surveys of member-schools’ students while employed at IMSA. “Ninety-nine percent of our students go on to college,” he says, and “all of the schools are producing a higher percentage of students who go into math and science majors than normal schools.”

Although as many as 65 percent of the students graduating from science and math academies declare majors in math, engineering, or science, many move on to other fields. “The hope,” Thomas says, “is that no matter what, they’ll be able to see the connections between science and humanities. Even if the students don’t go into science and technology careers,” he says, “the schools have raised the levels of efficacy.”

That can be bad news of a sort for college professors. Thomas reports that many students from specialized schools find their early years of college to be nearly as uninspiring as the standard high schools they avoided. “During the first two years of college, especially at large state schools, they are generally bored and underchallenged,” he says. “They’re used to collaboration and group projects and they become frustrated with the top-down, lecture-based teaching.” Monica Bruning, director of outreach and recruitment at the Iowa State University College of Engineering, has seen the problem from the universities’ point of view. When students from math, science, and technology schools arrive at college, she says, “it can be very hard to wow them. They’ve gone through the best, and if you can’t maintain that level of intrigue, there is a letdown. Oftentimes they’ve had experiences you just can’t top in a public university setting.” Still, Thomas notes that many of the students he tracked “leave high school very purposeful,” and that motivation is often enough to carry students through to more advanced classes. “The bottom line,” Bruning says, “is that they’re still only 16 or 17 and some take time to find themselves. Often their progress is similar to the general student population.”

On a visit to Stuyvesant in 1958, former president Harry Truman praised education in the sciences, but pointedly warned that “specialized schools are a great thing, provided you get a well-rounded education.” The school must have been listening: Stuyvesant graduates include famous scientists, including Columbia University string theorist and author Brian Greene (1980), and Nobel Prize winners in medicine, chemistry, and economics. But alumni also include actors James Cagney (1918), Tim Robbins (1976), and Lucy Liu (1986), and musicians such as the jazz great Thelonious Monk. “Tracking” students into narrow disciplines too early, Bruning says, “is a potential danger of specialized schools. It’s great to pique their interest, but you have to leave their options open.”

Most of the specialized schools do seem to take special care to ensure that they’re not streaming their students into narrow academic fields. “To see a student coming into high school locked into a plan at 14 is as sad as seeing a student with no plan in graduate school,” Thomas says. “Most of them are probably doing much more beyond math and science than you would expect.” Rosenstock, the principal of HTH, says that his school follows an 80:20 rule—80 percent “strong liberal arts college entrance” material, with a 20 percent dash of specialization—making it, in the words of one visitor, “a great liberal arts school in disguise.” In fact, he says his school’s name is somewhat misleading. “Technology is not a subject here,” he says. “The students don’t need to consume more technology, they need to learn to produce more with it.” The school boasts admirably equipped computer, science, biotechnology, and engineering labs, often supplied with donations from tech companies, but students also study Spanish, humanities, and art. Anabel Manuel, another senior at HTH in San Diego, is fascinated by biology and plans to become a medical doctor. But she has also won an award for a robotics internship, along with Litton and classmate Michelle Gutierrez, and produced an in-depth history of her father’s experiences in the U.S. Navy. “All I can say is that High Tech High has helped me to develop the hidden skills that I have,” she says.

Residential schools, such as IMSA, schedule extracurricular activities almost around the clock. But many specialized schools don’t have the resources to offer all of the sports teams and other opportunities that large, general schools do. Still, teachers often make an extra effort to expose students to outside interests. Visit Vavra’s biotech lab at HTH, for example, and you’ll find a punching bag suspended between the fire blanket and the safety shower at the back of the room. This year, he’s teaching 15 students—most of them girls—how to box. Last year, he offered a course in the elements of bull fighting, without, presumably, the benefit of a bull.

Birds of a Feather

Specialized schools can offer students social benefits as well. “Every student we got ended up asking ‘where’s this school been all my life?’” Thomas says, of his time at IMSA. Students in specialized schools “don’t have to explain their passion to anyone, or seek out other kids who share them,” says Shirley Malcolm, head of the education and human resources program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “They can be a nerd if they want to.” The only danger, she says, is that being part of an insular community “can lead you to believe that everyone is very bright and shares your interests. You also have to be around people you’re going to be around for the rest of your life.” She recommends service projects and volunteering to ensure students get a balanced experience of life. “Being one who was interested, I know how lonely the experience can be. Everything from finding dates to finding a conversation” was difficult, says Malcolm.

Many specialized high schools are very exclusive. At Stuyvesant, some 20,000 students from New York’s five boroughs sit for the entrance exam every year; only 750 are selected. The results can be stunning. Roald Hoffmann, a 1981 Nobel laureate in chemistry, recalled that “Stuyvesant held the largest concentration of intellectual talent I ever experienced, including college at Columbia or graduate school at Harvard.” While that can lead to a perception of elitism, “the real issue is how best to serve these kids,” Lindeman says. Thomas agrees. “In many ways, gifted students are as different as special needs students,” he says, “and they too often don’t get the attention they need to develop.”

And many of today’s specialized secondary schools are not just catering to the superbright. At High Tech High, says Principal Rosenstock, the entering class is selected in a random lottery from all the district students who apply. “We aren’t taking the best students,” says Vavra. “They’re accepted because they applied, so they showed a motivation for the innovation and rigor we can offer.” There is an element of self-selection, Rosenstock notes, because students and their families have to be organized and motivated enough to apply eight months in advance, “but it really is a diverse school,” he says. “We take students in a blind lottery from all over the city, and we don’t track them one bit once they get here. What we’ve really done is bring up the lower 75 percent. Because they’re not separated out, they feel they can do it too.” One measure of High Tech High’s success in drawing its students from diverse backgrounds: Rosenstock reports that not only are 100 percent of the school’s first graduating class in college, but some 70 percent of them are the first members of their family to go.

Some experts point out that the selectivity of specialized schools—whether based on academic achievement or on interest—can be particularly beneficial for groups of students who are often under-represented in math, science, and technology. Many students in regular high schools face social pressure to pretend not to be smart, says Iowa State’s Bruning, and girls even more so than boys. “Girls’ interest in math and science drops off dramatically in high school,” she notes. Being surrounded by other intelligent, motivated students “can really benefit young women and help to nurture their interest, so they do pursue these tracks.” Still, even with the best possible high school preparation, she says, engineering colleges continue to have a challenge attracting and retaining both female and minority students. “It’s not utopia at college,” Bruning says, “so it can be a real shock to come in and be one or two of 20 people in a class. Some are so committed that they plow through it. But many others don’t because they don’t have the community they are used to having.” Students from different backgrounds have different interests and ways of learning, she notes, but “engineering is still, to a large degree, a monoculture.”

Thomas says that specialized math, science, and technology schools are already helping to address that problem. “There are significantly more women going into math and science majors” from specialized high schools, and “specialized schools are indeed an effective way to increase minority representation in the sciences,” Thomas says. “The number is often very small because many of the schools are quite homogenous, but the consortium has made diversity one of its major priorities. It’s in the front of everyone’s minds,” he says. “When some of the schools were first started,” Malcolm says, “they didn’t have the most diverse student populations, either in terms of gender or racial and ethnic groups. But the best pay attention to that issue, and it seems to be getting better.”

Some education advocates charge that specialized schools rob the broader school system of both funding and potential student leaders. “Those of us doing schools like this do need to look at the effects of choice on nonchoosers,” Rosenstock says. But, he says, there isn’t much evidence that specialized schools are “creaming” the best students away from the general student population. Besides, he says, “locking students into schools that don’t work isn’t a solution either.” The important thing, Malcolm says, is not to forget about science education in general high schools as well. Specialized schools “can be absolutely wonderful institutions for the student who is science or engineering intended,” she says, “but there has to be attention to the system as a whole.” Science and technology education “has to be upgraded there as well, or you’ll leave a lot of students behind where they don’t have the opportunity to move” to a specialized school.

The benefits of specialized schools need not be limited to the students who attend them, Thomas says. Teachers from NCSSSMST schools and other specialized schools work on curriculum development and offer professional development programs for teachers from regular schools, Thomas says, “so whether students end up at our school or not, at least they’re getting a slightly different experience.” And because many of the NCSSSMST schools run on a half-day schedule, with students returning to their regular schools for nonscience subjects, Lindeman says, the students’ enthusiasm “can really help to spread that spark of interest back to their home schools.” Students at specialized schools also often help to spread the word more directly. Among her other activities, Manuel has been a member of HTH’ s “Got It Girls” outreach team, leading school tours and making presentations to students at San Diego schools. “During the first school year,” she says, “there were more boys than girls. I think it’s very important that girls should take advantage of the opportunity to attend High Tech High.”

More on the Way

TO ROSENSTOCK, the best approach to opening more access to top-quality science and technology education is to grow the High Tech High concept and export it around the country. In San Diego, that means opening new specialized schools—focusing on international studies, media arts, and the Mexican-American cross-border environment—and launching new science and technology schools in the surrounding area. It also means developing a network of High Tech Highs around the country, based on the same principles but funded and controlled by local groups. New High Tech High schools have already opened in Massachusetts, Illinois, and Oregon. In all, Rosenstock says, “by this time next year there will be 22 High Tech Highs.”

All those new schools take a lot of money and energy to establish, and many of the existing public specialized schools are feeling state budget crunches around the country. But high school science education has attracted local support and deep pockets. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has already invested over $600 million in secondary education projects, says spokesperson Marie Groark, with about $150 million of that money going to new math, science, and technology schools.

Why make secondary education a priority? “There are already lots of players in elementary education,” says Groark, “but high school is the orphan of education reform. We like to take on issues that are intractable, like AIDS in Africa and high schools in the U.S.” Maybe high schools aren’t really that bad, “but sometimes it sure feels like that,” she says.

Most students would probably agree; sometimes high school can feel like an absolute disaster. But even advocates agree that specialized schools don’t work for every student, and they aren’t the only solution to bad schools or poor math and science education. Still, they certainly seem to be reducing the number of disaster days for some students. At High Tech High in San Diego, Christopher Linton admits that he worried it might be “just a school for nerds and brains,” but he’s glad he chose to attend anyway. “A great school is a great school,” he says. “And this is definitely one.”

Tom Hayden is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Contact Prism