To cheer myself up during standardized testing month for my public school kids, I chatted recently with folks in the “project-based learning” arena of education.
One way to understand “project-based learning” is that it is the next evolution of what used to be known as “vocational” school training. It means businesspeople working hard to introduce practical business skills into a high school curriculum.
It also means high schools creating practical projects that teach students how to succeed professionally with marketable skills — after they’re done filling out bubble sheets with No. 2 pencils.
At Energy Institute High School — a magnet high school in Houston ISD that opened in 2012 — project-based learning means purposefully building workforce skills that could support the city’s oil and gas industry.
Interestingly, that doesn’t mean Johnny trains specifically to be a geologist and Luisa puts on a hard hat every day to simulate becoming a chemical plant operator. The school teaches skills needed by professionals both inside and outside the energy industry.
I recently hung out at the Energy Institute and wandered into a classroom dedicated to the school’s robotics team.
The robotics club team captain, a senior, casually pointed me to the 3D printer whirring away beside us.
“Oh, that’s printing our plastic case protector for our radio signal receiver on our robot. If anything goes wrong on our 3D printers, I’m the one who fixes them.”
I asked the next logical question: What is their robot for?
World Robotics Competition. We took second place in the world two years ago, beating out teams from China, India and all over the USA.”
A junior, who appeared to be second in command, explained the different functions on the team. She said every team has a captain, technicians, operators, designers, marketers and even observers who act as spies during the robotics competitions. Everybody has a role. It takes all types and disparate skills, working together as a team, if you want to beat the best of the best from around the world.
Gary Johnson, physics teacher and robotics mentor at the high school, said, “It’s the epitome of project-based learning. The students do all the milling work. They do all the wiring. They do design, and they build a new robot every year with just some minimal guidance from mentors. It is really the summation of our school.”
So at the Energy Institute High School, you have these 16-year-old kids running a highly complex team competing against the world’s best.
Ahem. Can I have your attention, industry leaders? You want to hire these kids. Like, right away. I know I wanted to hire them, and I have no practical use for a robot in my life.
Business leaders with a long-term vision for workforce readiness and their companies are dedicating resources to project-based learning schools similar to the Energy Institute High School.
Peter John Holt, CEO and general manager of San Antonio’s Holt Cat, a heavy equipment dealer, says his firm has partnered with project-based learning schools all over Texas in search of students with business-ready skills.
From Holt’s perspective, partnering with these schools reaps benefits throughout his company and benefits the schools as well. Holt Cat has partnered with Dallas-area John Dubiski Career High School to bring in high school juniors and seniors as paid interns, pairing them with experienced technicians. Holt Cat has also partnered with
Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Laredo College and Texas State Technical College in Waco to teach the skills Holt’s company needs.
Holt wants more traditional classroom teachers to visit his firm so they can see firsthand the value of business experience for their students.
As Holt told me, “When teachers come and spend time at our firm, a teacher can watch a welder and be able to return to their classroom and say, ‘Hey, look, I watched the welder actually use a geometry formula.’”
Holt accepted an advisory role with San Antonio’s CAST Tech, a project-based learning school that opened in 2017 to encourage this type of collaboration between industry and education.
“I wish people from all levels of the ecosystem knew the tangible and intangible benefits of experiential learning,” Holt said.
Bret Piatt, CEO of cybersecurity software firm Jungle Disk, partnered with CAST Tech and Highlands High School in San Antonio on real-life work opportunities.
Last summer, his firm hired 23 high school student interns and nine college students — a large cohort for a firm with only 30 full-time employees. But Piatt believes training a local workforce that is still in school is a key to his business’s future. Piatt joined the advisory group of CAST Tech because he believes project-based learning better prepares students to work at a firm like his.
Piatt passionately describes why he works with schools such as CAST TEch, and why other business leaders should as well.
“You talk to industry leaders and they complain that they can’t find qualified people to fill the roles that you have,” he said. “But then you ask them, ‘How much time are YOU spending on it?’ They often answer ‘None,’ or that they have a human resources department or community foundation that handles that.
“But if (workforce skills development) is your biggest problem and you’re not spending time on it, then it’s not going to have the attention and focus that it needs.”
Just last week, the team from the Energy Institute High School qualified for
the world robotics championships, which take place Wednesday through Saturday at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. The finals are scheduled for Saturday night at Minute Maid Park.
If you want to see the kids you need to hire in the future, the competition is free to the public.