Teaching tech for the 21st century

February 27th, 2015

News Coverage:

Teaching tech for the 21st century

Posted: Thursday, February 26, 2015 11:00 pm

By Linda Lipp

Graduation ceremonies in Columbia City will mean just a little bit more this year when Eagle Tech Academy graduates its first group of students who started at the school as freshmen.

“It’s very exciting,” said Brady Mullett, Eagle Tech’s principal. “They are a very special group. I’ve worked in education a long time and I’ve watched a lot of graduates walk across the stage. This will be very different because it was a learning experience for all of us.”

Eagle Tech is a program of Columbia City High School, and that’s the name that will appear on student diplomas. But, by design, it offers a very different educational experience than a traditional high school.

The school board and superintendent of the district began looking at a “New Tech” high school concept in 2009 as a way to address the needs of business and industry in the area.

“They felt that was the kind of program that met some of the needs that business and industry were asking for from our schools,” Mullett said. “More of a skills-based rather than a content-based program.”

The first New Tech concept school was created in California in the late 1990s. The first in northeast Indiana was in Fort Wayne and there are now about half a dozen in this area.

Mullett, who taught earth/space science and biology at Columbia City High School, was on the team of teachers who began investigating how to implement a New Tech program. He later became an assistant principal at the main campus, and then principal at Eagle Tech when it opened for the 2011-2012 school year.

Eagle Tech is housed near downtown in a former middle school; Mullett not only went to school there himself, his father was the principal.

Students at Eagle Tech take core courses there: four years of math, four years of science, a year of engineering, English and social studies and some foreign languages. Other courses they take at the main campus, including electives such as band, choir and art. Some start the day at the main campus, some finish it there, but during third and fourth periods, most are at Eagle Tech.

“I’ve got students coming and going all day,” Mullett said.

The approach to learning at Eagle Tech is both project-based and problem-based.

“It’s the same premise, it’s just the timeline is different. Instead of having this large, grand project, problem-based is more of a smaller concept,” he said. “More focused toward a specific skill set or knowledge base.”

Enrollment is open, and Eagle Tech gets about 100 new students each grade year. That ends up being about 40 percent of the total high school enrollment, which is one of the higher percentages of population in the New Tech network, Mullett said.

The enrollment mirrors that of the main campus in many ways. Although each new freshman class starts with more boys than girls, “the female population is really what ends up digging in and staying,” he noted.

There are some transfers in each year, especially among students new to the district, but that gets harder when the students get to junior and senior level. Because they work in teams, students learn to be very honest with each other about their work and their contribution, and it’s harder for transfer students to adapt to that culture.

Class size varies according to the subject matter and the approach. Freshman English is combined with U.S. history and taught by teachers from each discipline working together under the heading “American studies.” Sophomore English is combined with world history.

“Those two teachers work together in class. They work in the project design to integrate their content together, both process based and content based,” Mullett explained.

For example, sophomores recently did a unit on the Russian Revolution, integrated with reading “Animal Farm.” They brought in police officers, prosecutors and judges to talk to them about the system, and ultimately put the character of Napoleon the pig on trial.

“They really, seamlessly, attack it. It’s not like, here’s your English lesson, here’s your social studies lesson,” Mullett said.

The aim of combining disciplines is to make the class more relevant to today’s students.

“That can be challenging, and hard sometimes, but we find out that when kids feel there is a reason they are doing what they’re doing, it’s good for the classroom,” Mullett said. “It used to be, ‘I need to do this because I was told to do this.’ This generation is not that way. They don’t look at life through that lens. They look at it as, is it relevant to me?”

Because STEM related studies – science, technology, engineering and math – are at the core of the New Tech approach, the school tries to inject some tech element even into non-tech courses. New Tech students in Fort Wayne and Eagle Tech students in Columbia City have also collaborated on some projects.

Although students work in teams, they are graded individually in several areas: content, oral communication, written communication, problem solving, collaboration and something the school calls “agency,” which deals with taking feedback.

“That’s been wonderful for some students and a challenge to to others,” Mullett acknowledged.

Eagle Tech students also still have to take the same standardized tests as their counterparts on the main campus.

“I’ll put my scores up against anybody, but I’m not too focused on it,” Mullett said.

Many students earn dual course credits for their high school work, and some juniors there now already have 18 or more college credits, he noted.