Scott Bess, Head of School at Purdue Polytechnic High School

Purdue University in Indiana recently launched a new venture: a charter polytechnic high school. And what I am most excited about is how they are incorporating local businesses every step of the way. The high school creates a pathway that is both educational and skills-oriented, and includes mentored projects and internships that provide experiential learning.

I sat down with Scott Bess, an innovator in education and the Head of School at Purdue Polytechnic, to find out what makes this endeavor so exciting for everyone involved, and how the school is applying this mentorship opportunity. Don’t miss how Scott describes the school’s priority of “learning how to learn.”

What were the origins of your school concept?

As a Land Grant university, Purdue University has an obligation to provide high quality education to the citizens of Indiana and to be a resource to further the economic development efforts within the state. Purdue’s President, Mitch Daniels, is a former two-term governor of the State of Indiana, and was intimately aware of the skills gap looming in the primary economic sectors of the state. At the same time, Gary Bertoline, Dean of the Purdue Polytechnic Institute (the former College of Technology) was transforming the college into a project-based, multi-disciplinary program that was designed to produce graduates that could instantly be successful in the organizations they went to work for. He was struck by how unprepared incoming students were to work in an environment where they were expected to apply knowledge instead of simply regurgitating facts. Rather than simply pointing fingers at the K-12 system, the President and the Dean made the decision to launch a high school that could provide high quality K-12 graduates in a manner consistent with Purdue’s philosophy. Another driving force was to use the high school to dramatically increase the number of low income, minority students qualified to attend Purdue.

Please share the top 5 ways you will differentiate yourself from other schools.

a)     We start with overarching design challenges from which all academic content flows rather than organizing the school by subject area.

b)     We make the walls of the school transparent by actively involving community and industry partners in project design and direct instruction.

c)     Students progress at their own rate, rather than by pre-determined semesters or other units of time.

d)     Evaluation of student progress is not simply done via test scores or homework grades, but by a combination of self-reflection, teacher and staff input, and industry/community mentors.

e)     All components of the school use the design thinking process.

What role have business participants played in your curriculum development?

In preparation for the school launch, we identified two areas that we wanted to differentiate ourselves and aim for greatness. For all other areas, we are striving to be good, but to use tools and processes already in place at other schools. We felt this would allow us to have a strong focus and to successfully launch the school. The two areas for greatness are utilizing and teaching the design thinking process and for involving business and industry partners in all areas of the school.

The industry support has been invaluable. All of our challenges have been presented to us by industry partners, and staff from those partners will be intimately involved in helping students understand the challenge, mentoring students through the design process, and evaluating the proposed solutions at the end. We want our students to acquire knowledge from a variety of sources, not just from their teaching staff. We believe this sets us apart from all other high schools in the city, if not the state, in terms of active, daily involvement of our business and industry partners.

In my book, Teach to Work, I describe a new term called Project Based Mentoring.  Can you share with our readers two short examples of how projects will intersect with learning and with mentorship?

Project 1: Indianapolis Zoo

Challenge Story: The mission of the Indianapolis Zoo is to “empower people and communities, both locally and globally, to advance animal conservation.” Indianapolis Zoo President and CEO Mike Crowther states on the zoo website, “we’re not a zoo doing conservation; we’re a global conservation organization that is a zoo.” The Indianapolis Zoo drives conservation efforts locally, nationally, and globally through the Indianapolis Prize, which is the world’s leading award for animal conservation. The zoo also  offers experiences, tips and resources to “help everyone make a difference in our natural world.” The Indianapolis Zoo shows leadership by promoting conservation efforts and helping people understand what actions they can take to be responsible global citizens.

The Challenge: How can conservation efforts be increased and enhanced locally?

This project lasts for 6-8 weeks. Students will be expected to come up with a solution to the challenge using a variety of techniques. The staff has developed a list of academic standards which must be included from all of the core subject areas, and students will receive instruction in areas where they have gaps. Some of that instruction will take the form of traditional classes, while some of it will be done by the mentors from the Indianapolis Zoo as they work with the students. The Zoo staff will present the challenge to the students, actively mentor them through the process of coming up with solutions, and evaluate the solutions at the end of the project.

Project 2: Fair Oaks Farms

Challenge Story: The world’s population is projected to increase to over 9 billion people by 2050 (Godfray et. al., “Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People,” Science, 2010). At the same time, standards of living are rising around the world, resulting in higher demand for nutrient-rich food. As a result, 70% more food needs to be produced by 2050. While that task is daunting, we’ve been there before. In the past half-century, the world’s population doubled, yet advances in technologies resulted in a dramatic increase in food production, allowing us not only to meet that need but also dramatically lower the proportion of people in the world who go hungry.

Locally, organizations such as Fair Oaks Farms help us meet this global challenge. By adopting and developing the latest technologies, from autonomous tractors to automated feeders to the latest nutritional supplements, Fair Oaks creates efficiencies that allow them to greatly increase their food production. Moreover, they do so while actively promoting stewardship of the environment, such as capturing cow and pig waste and transforming it into fuel. To meet the world’s food needs, Fair Oaks and farms all across the state will need to continue to innovate and improve.

The Challenge: How will Indiana contribute to the challenge of feeding nine billion people without overwhelming the planet by 2050?

The process for this project is the same. Different academic areas and standards will be emphasized, but the staff from Fair Oaks will perform the same role as the staff from the Zoo in the first challenge.

What other roles do you anticipate Corporations, Businesses, and Community Partners playing in your school?

The entire school is built around the concept of design challenges created by our partners, and with those partners playing an active role in presenting the challenge, mentoring students through the challenge, and then evaluating solutions. As students progress towards finding a career pathway that interests them, our partners will increase their involvement by hosting internships and designing individual challenges for students. Depending on their level of expertise, they will also be asked to provide instruction (i.e. an engineer at Rolls Royce teaching an engineering class to advanced students) to students either within the school walls or at their place of work.

In your vision, can you describe what skills a graduate of your high school will be equipped with? How will they be better prepared to enter college? Or the workplace?

First and foremost, our students will have learned how to learn. They will certainly have the basic skills and knowledge expected of students who earn an Indiana high school diploma. But beyond that, they will understand that there are rarely clearly defined right and wrong answers and that successful people know how to navigate the ambiguity. They will have many experiences working with people at all levels, and they will have been team leaders and team members. They will have applied knowledge to real world issues, and have learned that you never stop the process of learning. All of these skills will equip them to be successful, whether they go on to a 4-year university or go directly to the workplace.

What keeps you up at night?

This is a new initiative, and there are few examples of this type of school throughout the country. This will be a different experience for staff, students, and parents, and we will have to navigate the bumps along the way.

In 10 years, how would you like to see your school, and its impact on education?

We want to see our school be a model for what is possible. By staying true to the vision, and by being a true open enrollment school, we want to show that high school can be a very different experience. We believe that high school is something that should not just be endured, but that serves as an inspiration to what is possible.