Capstones in high school

On Monday, 33 STEM high school teachers from around New Eng­land con­verged on Northestern’s campus for the third annual CAPSULE work­shop. Under the direc­tion of prin­cipal inves­ti­gator Ibrahim Zeid, mechan­ical engi­neering pro­fessor, and co-​​PI Claire Duggan, director of pro­grams and part­ner­ships at the Center for STEM edu­ca­tion, the NSF funded CAPSULE pro­gram, or CAP­Stone Unique Learning Expe­ri­ence, brings the cor­ner­stone of Northeastern’s engi­neering edu­ca­tion — cap­stone projects — into high school class­rooms around Mass­a­chu­setts. STEM teachers at sec­ondary schools around the state come to campus for two weeks to first par­tic­i­pate in their own mini-​​capstones and then develop lesson plans for estab­lishing a cap­stone project in their curricula.

Cap­stones are common lingo on this campus, but in case you’re not familiar, they are projects that cul­mi­nate a student’s STEM expe­ri­ence in which they apply the con­cepts they’ve learned to solve an open-​​ended, prefer­ably real-​​life, problem.

The video below, by Emmy-​​winning pro­ducer Lawrence Klein, high­lights the Cap­sule pro­gram and all that it can do for our nation’s youth, which lags far behind our inter­na­tional coun­ter­parts in math, sci­ence and engi­neering skills. It’s a long video, but if you’re inter­ested in this sort of thing, it’s well worth your time.

Some­thing I learned from watching it was that one quarter of Boston Academy of Arts stu­dents go on to study sci­ence and engi­neering in their higher edu­ca­tion careers. The head­master of the school, Linda Nathan explains the seem­ingly anom­alous sta­tistic thus: “The arts is about mucking around. The arts is about playing, taking risks. That’s what sci­ence is.”

I couldn’t agree more, Ms. Nathan!

Another person in the video, sci­ence teacher Anthony Iar­rapino from Lowell High School, says that our k-​​12 sci­ence courses need to get youth excited about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of STEM fields. “Unless you get them excited, I don’t think you have a high prob­a­bility of get­ting them into the higher level of learning that you want them to get into. You also can’t leave them just excited. You have to get them excited and then you have to stretch them.”

CAPSULE is about engaging teachers and showing them ways to get stu­dents excited. Duggan empha­sizes the fact that this doesn’t always have to be a high budget task, either. There are plenty of engi­neering projects that can happen with nothing but a roll of tape, a card­board box and an old CD, for example.