Students in Raeleen Epperson’s and Carl Adams’ biomedical science classes at Mt. Spokane High School knew they were in for a different type of classroom experience from their first week of school. Their first assignment? Discover how Anna Garcia died.
“She had a bunch of stuff wrong with her,” said freshman Carly Frank. “It was this like, CSI unit, and we had to determine how she died.”
The innovative curriculum comes from Project Lead the Way a nonprofit curriculum development organization that promotes mathematics, engineering and engineering technology courses in K-12 schools.
When Assistant Superintendent Dan Butler heard about the biomedical science course, he knew he wanted to bring it to Mead schools. Three years ago the district introduced the organization’s engineering program.
Butler said, “As a district we’re interested in becoming stronger and better in science and math.” In fact, the Mead District was recently recognized as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Lighthouse school.
In a letter, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said, “The rigor you have exhibited along with the real world application makes your school(s) an exciting educational experience for students.”
That real world application is just one of the things that make the group’s courses unique. Frank said the class was given toxicology and autopsy reports as they tried to figure out what caused Anna Garcia’s death.
“We put a bunch of theories on poster boards and argued our case before the class,” she said.
To prepare teachers to implement the program, the group partners with universities to provide training and ongoing support. Locally, Washington State University has been named an affiliate, and Sylvia Oliver is WSU’s biomedical sciences Project Lead the Way affiliate director.
“As a trained biological scientist, I’m amazed by this curriculum,” Oliver said. “It’s not only rigorous – it’s relevant. It mimics what a regular workplace, research lab or doctor’s office is like.”
Health care is a huge employer in the Spokane area, making the addition of this curriculum even more timely. Butler said, “Seventy percent of our local workforce is around biomedicine.”
Furthermore, 60 percent of students surveyed by Mead School District expressed an interest in biomedicine. Currently, 300 high school students are enrolled in the classes at Mead and Mt. Spokane.
Students and teachers are also enthusiastic about the practical, collaborative approach to learning. Oliver said, “There are 77 different hands-on activities in the first year, alone.”
Students at Mt. Spokane are studying diabetes. On a recent morning, students in Epperson’s and Adams’ classes worked on a lab assignment to figure out why too much sugar in the blood is bad. The biomedical science course is part of a four-year program and students in all four grades can participate. It’s unusual to have high school freshmen and seniors in the same class, but Adams says it has worked well.
In Adams’ class, as junior Kyle Madsen measured saline solution into a beaker he said, “I like this class because it’s dealing with people and real solutions and problems.” He pushed back his chair and grinned, “And there’s not a lot of homework.”
Indeed, most of the work needs to be done at school because students work together in groups. And instead of traditional textbooks, students use technology for both reading and research.
Hannah Waller, a senior, said, “We used iPads to look at hearts. You could zoom in and compare healthy and unhealthy hearts.” She smiled. “Normally blood and stuff makes me sick, so looking at it with technology was way cool.”
Students also use laptops in class to research assignments. “I’m not a big science person, but I’m surprised at how much fun this turned out to be,” Waller said.
Oliver said, “The beautiful thing about Project Lead the Way is that it starts out with a problem and kids have to problem-solve using technology. The learning takes place through the process – these are life skills.”
The Project Lead the Way biomedical and engineering classes are electives and don’t replace core classes. College credit is offered for students who complete the four-year engineering class and Oliver said WSU hopes to offer college credit for students completing the biomedical science program, as well.
Both WSU and Mead officials said they’ve found broad-based community support for this curriculum. Experts in the biomedical field come to the class and talk to the kids about career options. Freshman Caleb Appleby said, “A guy from Sacred Heart Medical Center came and talked about heart transplants and mechanical hearts. I’m hoping to take this class all four years.”
Karli Phillips said, “I want to be a nurse, so this is good preparation. I get to see the different types of jobs in the medical field.”
Mead is the only district offering Project Lead the Way biomedical science, but Oliver says the program will be expanding into Spokane schools next year. WSU also hopes to implement the course in rural school districts.
“We call it ‘lean forward education,’ ” Butler said. “Kids are leaning forward on their desks. We’re excited. We believe we’ve got something really great for all kids.”