On her first day at Albemarle High School’s Math, Engineering and Science Academy, Mackenzie Jones’ teacher divided the students into groups and asked them to calculate the number of Gatorade powder packets it would take to fill the classroom.
“We had to work together to figure out the dimensions of the room, and it was just a cool first project that showed us a problem and that we have to work in teams,” Jones said.
To date, Jones is one of 320 students who has focused on math, science and engineering at the Albemarle academy that utilizes a project-based learning model.
Jeff Prillaman, who wrote the curriculum and serves as the academy’s director, said the model forces students to learn actively.
“You can’t just sit back at your desk and be a passive learner, you can’t just sit at your desk and receive information and give it back on a test in two weeks,” Prillaman said. “That’s the piece of MESA that probably appeals to kids the most, the fact that learning is fun, and should be fun.”
A Popular Program
Now in its sixth year, MESA has only grown in popularity. In the first year, about 65 students applied for 50 spots. This year, approximately 200 students applied for 72 spots.
Prillaman cites the program’s practicality as the cause. He said that during his first 10 years of teaching he noticed students always wondering how the curriculum applied to the real world. To make these connections more apparent, Prillaman said, he designed MESA so students learn a concept and its application in tandem.
“Our response to the ‘When am I going to use this?’ question is ‘When you get back from lunch,’” Prillaman said.
Students can enter MESA in ninth or 11th grade. While the majority of students enter as ninth graders, Prillaman said accepting 11th graders has been a positive because many students aren’t thinking about MESA in their middle school years.
In the program’s first two years, students take classes in earth science, chemistry, physics, math analysis, trigonometry and algebra II. Grades 11 and 12 are entirely project-based, and students can earn dual-enrollment credits through Piedmont Virginia Community College.
Highlighting her experience building a small helicopter, Jones—now a second year engineering student at Virginia Tech—said she learned a lot from the projects. To make the helicopter challenge more difficult, Jones said, her teacher added real-world constraints.
“You started off with the basic materials, and if you wanted to buy anything else, you had to trade in time or [pretend] money,” Jones said. “I thought that was cool, to work in real-world parameters.”
“School starts at 8:55, but by 8:15 I’ve got two full classrooms of kids already here learning,” Prillaman said. “You’ve got seniors working with freshman. They’re joined by interest, not necessarily grade level.”
Despite MESA’s popularity, competition for a seat is stiff. Almost 70 percent of those interested aren’t admitted due to a lack of space.
“There are a lot of great kids that this program could hit…and I’d love to have the space for it, but we’ve got two classrooms and we’re creeping into a third,” Prillaman said.
Another source of difficulty is money. Project-based learning requires materials for the projects, which over time, can be costly.
“I want to build bridges out of balsa wood, but that’s too expensive, so I’m using spaghetti and glue because it’s cheap,” Prillaman said. “I can’t really test a strand of spaghetti at the level that I want to determine how my bridge is going to work.”
Prillaman said a single trip to Lowe’s to purchase supplies for a project can cost as much as $300.
“We’ve got a 3D printer, which has become very popular, but everything you print has to be approved now because at the cost of $5 per cubic inch it adds up really quickly,” Prillaman said. “You want to be able to prototype and test something and try it out and discard it, and that can’t happen now, which is frustrating.”
Prillaman said there are online programs students can use to design structures and test their strength, but argued that it would be more in-line with project-based learning if students were able to build a bridge and then test its strength with machinery.
Kendall Coffman, a MESA graduate and second year engineering student at Vanderbilt University, recalls instances where MESA had to acquire less-advanced software than they had hoped, but she also recognizes that living within a budget is a learning experience.
“I definitely know that this is an issue because Mr. Prillaman wants to make it as amazing as possible and have us do these really cool projects,” Coffman said. “But in a sense it is the real world because they can’t provide us with an infinite amount of materials.”
Despite the trend toward project-based learning, some school board members have warned that the model can allow students to hide within their groups, shirk their responsibilities and thus not master the concepts.
But Jones said that even though there are some people who “just don’t like to do work,” she learned valuable collaboration skills from these incidents.
“You have to find a way to make them feel like it’s something important to them,” Jones said. “I like to take leadership positions in group work, so I would find myself trying to get everyone involved equally, and for the most part it worked.”
Gender and Race
Unlike most engineering programs, MESA attracts a lot of females. Prillaman said MESA has been able to achieve a 45 percent female population by building the math and science courses the students would already be taking into the program’s first two years.
“You’re going to be taking a math and science anyway, so why not take them in MESA?” Prillaman said. “And once you get the females in, now all of a sudden they find out they like it so they stay in the program.”
Most engineering schools range from 15 to 20 percent females, Prillaman said.
Coffman said her time at MESA influenced her decision to pursue a career in engineering.
“I always enjoyed hands-on activities, and being a part of MESA opened my eyes to the fact that engineering was the type of profession that was really geared toward hands-on learning and group collaboration,” Coffman said. “After a year of college, I really can’t imagine majoring in anything else at this point.”
Jones said that she would have pursued engineering anyway, due to her personal interest in the field, but praised the fact that more females are choosing science.
“I feel very comfortable as a woman in engineering,” Jones said. “There’s even the Society of Women Engineers that’s in a bunch of colleges and they make it very comfortable.”
“It’s a great field to go into, and if you’re a female, you have a job the second you graduate,” Prillaman said. “I’m proud of that [45 percent] number.”
But MESA can’t boast the same minority numbers, as only 15 percent are students of color. Prillaman said he would like to see these numbers rise as well, but said MESA doesn’t receive as many minority applicants.
“It’s almost what math you go into in the sixth grade, and so that fifth to sixth grade transition is something that I would hope to see improve,” Prillaman said.
Becoming an Engineer
Another aspect of the program’s growth is to see the students learning about the different types of work engineers do.
“When you say ‘engineer’ so many people think electrical engineer or some guy wearing a hard hat at a construction site,” Prillaman said. “But there are shoe engineers, biomedical engineers, nanotechnology, all of these different disciplines that aren’t necessarily portrayed.”
So MESA’s teachers push the students to find science competitions that interest them.
In the last four years, MESA students have won 37 of 72 first-place finishes at the regional science fair, including best in show awards the last three years. The program also had a team place first in a worldwide robotic sailing competition, where it lined up against the United States Naval Academy.
“They gave us a lot of freedom to do what we wanted and to use our imaginations, and at the same time get a lot of valuable experience before going into college,” Coffman said.
In addition to the high school experiences, the students leave prepared.
“I’ve already seen the benefits from some of the projects that we did at MESA,” Coffman said, noting that introductions to software such as MATLAB and AutoCAD she received in Albemarle prepared her for her classes now.
Jones agreed, and said that she was able to skip Tech’s general engineering classes because they transferred from MESA.
“In my upper-level math courses, MESA really helped because it made me able to tackle what’s in front of me,” Jones said.
Designing the Future, Remembering the Past
As MESA carries on, Prillaman said he and his colleagues will continue to tweak the curriculum as need be, always including students in the process.
“Involving the kids in some of the decisions about building the program gives them a buy-in at a whole different level to where they literally feel that it’s as much their program as it is mine,” Prillaman said.
And the teachers’ attention to the students, Coffman said, makes MESA work.
“They really take the time to get to know the students,” Coffman said. “They aren’t just standing in front of the classroom talking to us.”
Reflecting on her experience, Jones applauded the teamwork design.
“You could learn from each other, both within your own group and from the other groups working next to you,” Jones said. “I thought it was really nice to have a collaborative experience in MESA.”