When I first met Oscar, a junior at Health & Science High School in Beaverton, Oregon, he was an extremely disengaged, cynical young man. He skipped school all the time and when he did show up, he wasn’t present. He rarely participated in classroom activities or discussions, opting instead to keep his head on the table, where he often drifted off to sleep. As you might guess, hopes for an on-time graduation were growing dim for Oscar. I feared he would likely become one of the 40 percent of Latino males who drop out of high school in Oregon each year.
This all changed, however, when I presented him with an idea: Enroll in my Biomedical Innovations class for his senior year and use his interest in photography to help set up our new Motion Capture System, a piece of equipment the school had just purchased for us. I called it “my” Biomedical Innovations class, but it’s actually a course designed by a company called Project Lead The Way. They specialize in bringing real-world learning to the classroom in ways that most schools struggle to do on their own.
Because he needed extra credits to graduate on time, he created his own elective to get the Motion Capture System up and running. It was entirely up to him. I had several other classes I was teaching and didn’t have the time to devote to it. I basically handed him the manuals and the contact information for the vendor and researchers. He dove right in.
It seemed like the self-paced, project-based focus of my Biomedical Innovations class, along with his Motion Capture System project created an environment for Oscar to thrive. The class doesn’t rely on the typical report writing and teacher instruction of other high school classes. Instead, students get projects to work on—usually in groups—that are about real-world situations and scenarios like recognizing and preventing orthopedic injuries, for example.
I started seeing changes in Oscar. He took leadership roles in his Human Physiology Experiment—organizing his group members, ordering the supplies his team needed and ensuring they included enough students to achieve statistically significant results. He excelled in his Orthopedic Injury capstone where he had to research and develop the physical and mental plan of care for a hypothetical athlete with a specific injury and then defend his work via a 15-minute presentation in front of a panel of professionals. He nailed it.
Once he had the Motion Capture System up and running—including new manuals and videos for using it—he launched into his own independent research project, meeting virtually with biomechanists to develop a screening protocol for female athletes with anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries. He did that without any help from me or his other teachers. After developing a system to help clinicians determine how likely an athlete is to tear their ACL, he taught other students how to use this state-of-the-art screening method. Currently, our biomechanics lab rivals the current motion capture system used at universities and graduate schools in the area.
Ultimately, Oscar decided to pursue photography instead of medicine, but he learned valuable academic skills and developed a professionalism, leadership traits and incredible problem-solving skills that he’ll use for the rest of his life. But perhaps the biggest change I saw in him was that he started smiling.
His other teachers—who were also once worried about whether he’d graduate—started commenting on his growth and maturity.
The big lesson for me was simple: Students feel engaged when you give them relevant and interesting work. Oscar’s story is a testimony to how hands-on, project-based learning—the kind schools can easily implement through adoption of programs like Project Lead The Way—is critical to preparing students to thrive in their futures. Being able to see how what they are learning in the classroom matters in the real world is critical to engagement and sparking an interest in learning. When students become engaged in the classroom, they develop a confidence that leads to competence, which creates more confidence.
This kind of learning levels the playing field and is engaging and accessible for all students. It’s how the real world works—having to apply knowledge and skills to solve problems. I truly believe we need to provide these opportunities to all students, at the earliest grade levels.