In the past few years, Berggren has been teaching engineering design principles to seniors at High Tech High who must all complete a senior project (a large, complex project, sometimes combined with a few small projects to help them get started). Berggren is one of six teachers teaching these seniors; the others are an art teacher, a multimedia teacher, a physics teacher, and two English teachers. The students rotate through four of them, two each semester, so that one group of students may take, for example, art and physics in the fall and English and engineering in the spring. Each semester course is actually a double course that takes up half the day; by the end of the year students have taken a full-year equivalent of art, physics, English, and engineering. “In the past we let the seniors choose their disciplines,” Berggren says, “but we decided we wanted to expose them to as much as possible.” Now the school decides which of the four classes each senior will take. “We’re constantly changing,” Berggren says, “trying new things.”
Whenever possible, the senior-project teachers collaborate so no matter which courses a particular student takes in a given semester, he or she will be taught with an emphasis on various connections and common subjects. This is easier to do for some pairings than others, Berggren notes. When he was paired with the art teacher, for instance, they worked on creating pots. In the spring 2008, he was paired with an English literature teacher, and they did mostly separate things.
Over the years, Berggren says, he has found that the most difficult thing for students working on a senior project with an engineering component has been to identify the problem that had to be solved. So, before the 2007–2008 school year, he traveled to Purdue University to be trained in their Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program. EPICS students work in design teams to solve problems for nonprofit organizations in the local community (Coyle et al., 2005). Originally developed for students in college engineering classes, EPICS is now being tested in 15 to 20 high schools around the country, including High Tech High.
Today, instead of students trying to come up with a design problem on their own, Berggren has them begin by researching nonprofit organizations in the community. Once a group of students decides on a nonprofit they would like to work with, they set up a meeting with members of that organization to discuss what they can design to help the organization run better or to do things it can’t do. “The students identify a problem, research it, see what’s been done, come up with solutions, settle on a design, build it, test it, and deliver it to the organization,” Berggren says. “They have a real customer—it’s not me telling them what to do. And it gives them more ‘buy in’ because they are selecting the organization.”