What differentiates the Mayfield Innovation Center from traditional classrooms is evident not just in the virtual reality technology, the 3-D printers or the open architecture that make the two-floor, 30,000-square-foot building seem less of a secondary school than a Google satellite office.
It is also in the words emblazoned on the crimson-colored wall of the Computer-Aided Drafting and Design lab, a quote attributed to Curt Richardson, the founder of OtterBox, which makes consumer electronics accessories:
Failure is a part of innovation. Perhaps the most important part.
Wait a minute. Failure, being extolled, even celebrated? In a high school?
Yes, in part because this is not a typical school. The center at suburban Mayfield City Schools, a district of 4,300 K-12 students 15 miles east of Cleveland, is a striking example of an approach to education that could eventually make traditional methods as outdated as chalk and blackboards.
Mayfield’s model is described as project-based, team-centered, career and industry-aligned learning.
Project Lead the Way, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that is one of the prime progenitors of this educational philosophy, articulates it in its mission statement:
“We believe all students — beginning at a young age — need access to real-world, applied learning experiences that empower them to gain the skills they need to thrive in college, career and beyond.”
At programs like Mayfield’s — where 11 teachers have completed Project Lead the Way’s certification since 2014 — that means not only access to state-of-the-art technology, but also partnerships with local organizations to provide those experiences. These include the Cleveland Clinic, which collaborated with the high school this semester in a six-week project in cardiopulmonary education.
Eighty-seven students in grades 9 through 12 were assigned cases that required learning about the anatomy of the heart, as well as advanced medical technologies addressing heart disease. Working in teams of five or six, the students used materials like balsa wood and foam board to create three-dimensional models showing specific problems in the heart, and they became immersed in sophisticated virtual reality simulations that allowed them to see a stent being inserted into an occluded artery.
During the process they were mentored not only by their own teachers, but also by staff members from the hospital. Maria Held, a clinical nurse specialist, was dazzled by the Innovation Center, a $3 million facility that opened in 2015 and was largely paid for by a bond issue.
“It’s almost futuristic,” Ms. Held said. “Especially compared to when I was in school.”
Keith Kelly, superintendent of the Mayfield City School District, said the center was “about getting kids involved in inquiry, in solving problems, in partnerships, in authentic projects that may be of interest to them.”
And it is not just the schools that are driving this. The project-centered approach to education involves industry and colleges as well. Here are some other examples.
Career Academies in Pasadena
The Pasadena, Calif., Unified School District — a district in which 65 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches — has nine career-themed “academies” for its high school students. These are learning environments that closely simulate various industries and professional settings, and include an app development lab, a credit union, a digital film studio and even a courtroom.
All are supervised by teachers working with advisory boards and mentors from local industry, including such organizations as McDonnell Douglas, Caltech, Kaiser Permanente and Saatchi.
Superintendent Brian McDonald calls it a “linked learning” approach — linking core academic content with a strong set of career technical education course and work-based learning opportunities. “I really think this is the future of education,” he said.
Engineering Innovation at Toyota
Toyota has a number of initiatives aimed at funneling students into careers with the automaker, via partnerships with 256 high schools, summer internships for high school students, specialized degree tracks, and part-time employment at the college level and eventually, for those who finish the pathway, jobs.
The company’s $10.3 million commitment is intended to address what the program developer, Dennis Dio Parker, calls “the crisis level” shortage of advanced manufacturing technicians facing his industry.
“This is self-motivated change,” said Mr. Parker, who is based at the automaker’s Georgetown, Ky., production support center. “Instead of complaining and griping and pontificating about the educational system, we realized that we had to do something about it.”
Toyota, some say, is a model for other industries. “They send a clear signal to all employers that schools can’t do this alone,” said Vince Bertram, president and chief executive of Project Lead the Way. “If we’re going to solve the skills gap, we have to work together.”
Addressing Teacher Diversity
While many of these innovative programs are STEM-oriented, one partnership between higher and secondary education in Massachusetts seeks to address a different problem: a shortage of nonwhite teachers in the classroom.
“As the number of students continues to diversify in terms of race, language and ethnicity, the teachers are still about 90 to 92 percent white,” said Claudia Rinaldi, the director of the education department at Lasell College in Newton, Mass. (Nationwide, the number is about 85 percent.)
Lasell’s “Pathways to Teacher Diversity” — part of a statewide effort supported by a Gates Foundation grant — is a partnership with four school districts in the state intended to encourage more high school students of color to pursue careers in education. “Research suggests that when these students have a teacher of color, they do better,” Ms. Rinaldi said.
An orientation meeting for the Pathways program a year ago attracted 160 students from the four districts. The first group of 12 is getting college credit for an introductory teaching course; an additional 26 are being mentored by Ms. Rinaldi’s Lasell students.
The long-term goal, she said, is to get these students to return, as certified teachers, to K-12 schools like the ones they attended. “The districts are hungry to diversify their teaching force.”
A Forerunner in New York City
In 1972, City-as-School High School was established by New York City’s Board of Education, as a “school without walls.” According to a Bank Street College of Education paper on the alternative school’s history, prospective students were invited to “see the city as your curriculum” and to “imagine yourself” in various and glamorous-sounding professional settings.
Today, most of the 600 students who attend City-as-School spend about two days per week in traditional classes at its Greenwich Village campus. The other three days, they are involved in internships with one of about 300 organizations — from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Marvel Comics. There, the students are supervised by employees of the organization (who themselves go through special training), and also by City-as-School teachers who help their students work through the new and daily challenges of work life.
“We have a very real world context for what they’re learning,” said the principal, Alan Cheng.
And that was what the founders of City-as-School hoped to foster. The practicality and applicability of education are still the goal, as innovative school programs and their partners seek to reimagine the educational system in the 21st century. Or as another sign at the Mayfield Innovation Center reads (this one just outside the drafting and design lab, and attributed to Thomas Edison):
There is a way to do it better. Find it.