TOPICS > Education

High-tech School Prepares Students for Shifting Economy

April 17, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Paul Solman reports on a high school in California that pushes its students to focus on the future by preparing for jobs in the world of high technology -- while also helping the U.S. stay competitive in a global marketplace.

PAUL SOLMAN, NewsHour Economics Correspondent: A high school class where kids are preparing for the global future by learning to innovate and compete in high-tech.

WES VETTER, Student: We’re hoping to create this sort of like training device for people who want to participate in the events, so maybe something like tennis, where they have a limited range of motion.

PAUL SOLMAN: Wes Vetter and partner Andrew Fergin (ph) seem about as competitive as you can get, inventing new technology — a device to teach special needs kids to swing a tennis racket — for this year’s Special Olympics.

WES VETTER: We’re taking these three-point perspective drawings and we’re drawing them out just to get an idea of that. And then we’re going to transfer them onto this program here called CAD. So we’re just practicing that right now.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that’s computer-assisted design.

WES VETTER: Yes, computer-assisted design.

PAUL SOLMAN: For all the studies showing that American students are falling behind the rest of the world in science, it’s not happening here.

At High Tech High in San Diego, one of the most competitive charter schools in the country, everyone goes to college, yet anyone can attend. Admission is strictly by lottery.

This school is built on competition, making things, like this semi-cyborg for a national robot contest. It’s supposed to shoot Nerf basketballs into a goal nine feet off the ground.

Student science projects are everywhere: a shadow-activated L.E.D. display, an electronic ornament for the holidays.

The can-make, can-do ethos extends near and far.

There’s an African bushmeat expedition down the hall from engineering class that’s sequencing DNA to prepare for a trip to Tanzania, where contraband lion and chimp meat is reportedly sold.

ZACHARY SHEFFER, Student: That’s also how HIV may have actually transferred over from animals to humans is because someone just ate a monkey.

PAUL SOLMAN: God’s work, you might say, while in the process helping close the global gap in science.

The U.S. now trails almost every country of comparable wealth in high school science tests, Canada, Japan, Australia, Germany. One reason High Tech High was created: to turn the scores around.

San Diego businessman Irwin Jacobs says U.S. science deficiency was throttling the growth of his high-flying San Diego computer chip company, Qualcomm.

DR. IRWIN JACOBS, Chairman, Qualcomm: Our problem was that when we’d go to hire, we were just not finding enough properly trained individuals, trained so they could do new kinds of technology, and that’s the kind that we specialize in.

PAUL SOLMAN: Jacobs could import top talent from abroad, but that didn’t exactly address the problem of our decreasing competitiveness and what might happen to Qualcomm and America if the slide persisted.

DR. IRWIN JACOBS: Well, over the years, we were very concerned about the fact that such a small percentage of students were really preparing themselves with math, science in the middle schools, in the high schools, and then going on for graduate work in the sciences and in engineering.

Providing practical experience

Idalia Maytorena
High Tech High student
Here we have the opportunity to be a part of what we do and not just -- as they were mentioning -- not just read off a textbook, actually get to be a part and do the hands-on part of the project.

PAUL SOLMAN: So business leaders in San Diego came up with an idea to pilot a charter high school, open to anyone. They approached educator Larry Rosenstock.

LARRY ROSENSTOCK, CEO, High Tech High: They said, "Why don't we grow our own? Why don't we grow our own from internally, from in our community, from in our metropolitan area? Why don't we grow our own future leaders who will be playing these types of roles as scientists and engineers?"

PAUL SOLMAN: Of course, we used to grow our own. America was long a fount of applied science, "Yankee ingenuity" at the start, creating labor-saving technology in a country with so much land, so little labor.

And, eventually, after the explosion of wealth, population, and public education, the advent of higher technology, from the automobile and airplane to the atom bomb and computer.

America became the world's model for technology, America as "number one." But these days, Jacobs' ambition is more modest.

DR. IRWIN JACOBS: That's what we all want. It's not a question, can we have a larger gross national product than China or some other, India, whatever? It's, how are we doing?

How, in fact, do we interact in the world with these other countries so that we provide to them enough goods that we can buy back their goods? Those are critical. We have been falling behind. And part of the reason we're falling behind is because our educational system has been falling behind.

PAUL SOLMAN: One way to reverse the trend, then: get kids psyched about science by teaching the fun parts, the discovery.

LARRY ROSENSTOCK: So the beauty of getting kids to become interested in math and science and engineering is to have them behave like scientists, behave like mathematicians, behave like engineers, not prepare for bubble answer tests, which is not what those professionals do.

And the way that you create that type of environment, like a place like MIT or Rensselaer Polytech (ph) or Caltech or Olin now is kids make things and do things, challenging things, and then they're exemplary, which we look at, and they present them publicly.

And then the whole school as an organism sees and says, "That was a really good one." "That one wasn't so good." "Next cycle, mine is going to look like that one."

IDALIA MAYTORENA: Here we have the opportunity to be a part of what we do and not just -- as they were mentioning -- not just read off a textbook, actually get to be a part and do the hands-on part of the project, and not just read about it, like in other common high schools.

Engaging students in technology

Darrell McClendon
Evan did what I believe every student should do: Evan just basically became a sponge.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is a liberal arts where you get stuff done through fun and games, which it turns out inspires kids to try anything, including science, as in the annual competition of FIRST, "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," started by entrepreneur Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway scooter.

Last year, says engineering teacher Dave Berggren...

DAVID BERGGREN, Teacher: This robot, its whole goal was to pick up tubes, actually, kind of like pool inner tubes, and place them on a big octagonal rack, and you basically got points by how many of your team got in a row, either horizontally or vertically.

Students design and build everything from transmissions to drive the robot to lifts and everything. So just on Tuesday we shipped our robot for this year's competition. We just finished our six-week build time, and so we've been frantically working for the last six weeks.

PAUL SOLMAN: They frantically work on projects where the rubber meets the road or sometimes even the marketplace.

Now at Olin College, a tiny new elite engineering school near Boston, Evan Morikawa became an entrepreneur at High Tech High. We interviewed him over the Internet.

EVAN MORIKAWA, Student: I made a new way to input text, if you will, into PDAs and cell phones.

PAUL SOLMAN: His product: an electronic glove to improve on the all-thumbs approach.

Can you tap out for me, as if you had the glove on, "Hello, Paul, this is Evan"?

EVAN MORIKAWA: To type an "h," you just push your middle finger, and "e" is your pointer, and "l" is your thumb.

PAUL SOLMAN: Oh, I see, so combinations of the fingers give you different letters.

EVAN MORIKAWA: That's right. And with five fingers, you can get 31 different letters. And I put a shift on the palm...

PAUL SOLMAN: You talk to a kid who's done something like this and you can't help thinking "genius." But, look, his teacher says, he started...

DARRELL MCCLENDON, Teacher: ... never having even programmed anything before, could not read an electrical schematic at all, had never done any of that before, but ended up learning it.

And a lot of what he learned -- and he actually learned from some of the other kids in the class that knew some of the bits and pieces of it, that knew how to start and knew how to read a schematic, understood what was happening with all the different components and stuff like that.

And Evan did what I believe every student should do: Evan just basically became a sponge.

Fostering entrepreneurship

Larry Rosenstock
CEO of High Tech High
That is what the future is about, and that's what globalization is about. We need a quiver of differentiated options for people. That's what we need. And this is one of them, and there are others.

PAUL SOLMAN: He also became an entrepreneur, perhaps the key role Americans have played in staying atop the global economy for the past century, and certainly the key to Irwin Jacobs' and Qualcomm's success, even now.

DR. IRWIN JACOBS: I often tell employees that they should continue to think about Qualcomm as a start-up, but a start-up with a very good cash flow.

And most people, in fact, are entrepreneurial when they have the right level of background and the right environment in which to work.

And so, again, it gets back to the appropriate education, the appropriate motivation when they went through school, some excitement in their academic days, and of course now when they get into industrial situations.

It's essential that we be able to find people with the appropriate training; that is, indeed, getting harder and harder to do.

PAUL SOLMAN: That's why Qualcomm had to rely more on more on talent from abroad, as Americans sagged in science, if not entrepreneurship. But they haven't sagged at High Tech High.

Only 38 percent of high school grads in California have met the state's college acceptance standards in math and science, compared to 100 percent at High Tech High.

Thus, by stressing actual accomplishment, fostering cooperation and competition, teaching teamwork, Larry Rosenstock's experiment may be one way to prepare the next generation scientifically for the global economy.

But, he insists, it's not the only way.

LARRY ROSENSTOCK: When I was principal of a 350-year-old high school back east, a public high school of a community that has 100,000 people, I learned a very strong lesson.

There is not one solution for a community of 100,000 people. Ergo, there is not one solution for a state; ergo, there is not one solution for a country.

No, we need a quiver. That is what massive customization is about. That is what the future is about, and that's what globalization is about. We need a quiver of differentiated options for people. That's what we need. And this is one of them, and there are others.

PAUL SOLMAN: High Tech High itself, meanwhile, is expanding to more kids, other venues, earlier grades, and even other high schools, including one that now features a global focus: High Tech High International.