Innovation and Design Course Prompts Learning by Doing

Students at San Juan High School participate in a Career Pathway program that is designed to teach them real-world skills through interactive coursework.

CITRUS HEIGHTS, CALIF. — A student sets to work shaving excess plastic from a five-foot-high replica of a soda bottle with a handheld power tool. Nearby, two of her peers stir paint and plot the next steps toward the completion of the recycling bin project.

Unlike many students in classrooms across America, the young learners in San Juan High School’s Innovation & Design Career Pathway program are too busy creating to focus on the myriad distractions linked with being a teenager in the Digital Age. 

And that’s the big idea — supply them with information, give them the tools and set them loose on projects they care about. The learning will follow.

The school’s pathway program is the latest answer to the longstanding debate over how to instill real-world, career-focused education into the hearts and minds of increasingly distractible youth. 

By furnishing course options like transportation technology, culinary arts, media arts, construction technology, and innovation and design, students at the Sacramento-area high school are given a say when it comes to just where their education will take them.

With more students than ever rejecting the tired norms of our country’s educational systems, teachers and administrators are having to find new ways to engage a new generation of learners. To do it, they’ll need to cut through the static created by smartphones, social media and problems that didn’t exist for teens 10 years ago.

But Kristen Miller, a civil and structural engineer turned educator, and has no trouble reaching the roomful of energetic teenagers in her innovation and design pathway class. Her enthusiasm for her work and the subject is something lacking from so many traditional classrooms today. 

One look around the large, well-equipped classroom tells you these students aren’t here because they have to be; they're here because they want to be. 

“In my engineering education, I had a lot of theory-based lecture classes, but not a lot of hands-on stuff, so part of what I wanted to do was teach engineering from the reverse perspective. Teach them how things go together and then give them some of the code-type information, like how much does one screw or one nail actually take in terms of force,” she said. “They’re getting the hands-on right now, and hopefully that will open their eyes to potential careers in science, technology, engineering, math, that kind of thing.”

Miller, who is also a veteran math teacher, was approached about adding the course to the school’s larger suite of offerings after the engineering pathway was closed due to a general lack of student interest.

“I started brainstorming and thinking, what sort of information would they need? They need information about materials, they need information about tools and equipment, designing on computers with AutoCAD and Inventor," she said, "and that’s sort of how it was born."

What’s more, the state-of-the-art classroom isn’t simply an updated version of the standard high school woodshop. The latest tools and technology, like 3D printers and pens, give each student access to the latest and greatest.  

The innovation and design pathway is modeled after Stanford’s nationally recognized D School, or Design School, which offers adult students a non-traditional approach to the college-level coursework.

But something more than just out-of-the-box learning is happening in the high school’s high-tech workspace. Students who haven’t had access to or interest in the engineering and design fields are getting a firsthand look at potential careers and liking what they see.

Sophomore Faith Moua is part of a group building a distinctive recycling bin for the school. She said the pathway’s design and engineering focus will help her chart her academic and career future.   

“That’s actually one of the reasons I joined the pathway," she said, "to figure out what I want to do, because this pathway is designed to do a little bit of everything."

For Moua’s classmate, Achante Broadnax, the program is offering her an opportunity to hone her skills working in a group. Broadnax is pursuing an engineering career in either robotics or the petroleum industry, but said she wanted the collaborative environment that comes with many of the projects in Miller’s course.

“I really like it. There are so many things we can do, and it’s not just limited to one thing,” she said. “I’m learning how to work with people because that’s always a good skill to have, and more hands-on activities are helping me with that. We design a lot of things in here, so that comes in handy.”

The students in Miller’s class will be taking the plastic bottles collected by their custom-designed bins and using them for a course on recyclable materials, which includes designing and building functional boats.

Principal Vanessa Adolphson said the pathway program is giving students a leg up for college work and the evolving workforce. By working with the private industry and county administration, she said, the school is able to give students relevant training they can translate to higher-level education and their careers. 

“[The program teaches] 21st-century skills using critical thinking, and you can see the students’ creativity has come from that,” she said. “They’re working with private industry as well as the Sacramento County Office of Education to keep up with what is happening in private industry.”

Adolphson said the pathway program has integrated well into the school’s larger mission of preparing students for life’s next steps. 

“In the district, if you notice, every school has its specialty, and this is ours," she said. "College and career readiness is our main focus and vision for our students."

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at