By Christine Cooke

This year the Park City School District won the prestigious 2015 FETC STEM Excellence Award for its program called PCCAPS, or the Park City Center for Advanced Professional Studies. The award recognizes high school STEM programs. (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.) Park City High School was one of only three schools in the nation highlighted for excellence and innovation in this field.

So what is PCCAPS? It’s a profession-based, project-driven public school program designed to educate students through actual industry experience. Its purpose is to prepare students for success in college and the workforce by exposing them to career options. It’s not a vocational or trade school.

Here’s how it works.

PCCAPS has several moving pieces: the students, the business clients, the industry mentors, the instructors, and learning takes place in the interactions between them. For example, a local business brings a noncritical industry need to the program. At this point, the business becomes a client. Then a small group of students create a solution for the client’s need. This involves creating a raw concept, devising a project, developing skill sets, and formulating and implementing a solution.

Instructors guide the course. Industry mentors visit as needed.

In the process, students learn industry-specific skills and STEM-related concepts. They practice critical-thinking and problem solving. And they employ professional “soft” skills like speaking with clients and working collaboratively.

As you can tell, it’s quite different from the typical high school classroom model.

When I visited PCCAPS, I saw how the unconventional high school program seemed to be working. In a section of the high school library, two students were chatting with a business client. In another room, a student was printing her original design on a 3D printer for The Leonardo. Another student was coding flight simulations for a nearby airport. Two students were sitting on the ground building a machine to be used for Smithsonian museum video tours.

No one was bound to a desk and the instructor was not giving a lecture.

Like anything, the program has benefits and challenges.

One benefit is that PCCAPS allows for a more student-centered education. Every student has unique strengths, weaknesses, interests and educational needs. The traditional model largely cannot respond to this, but innovations like PCCAPS offer options.

For example, one newspaper highlighted a Park City student who had tremendous challenges in school because of her dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. In fact, she was not certain she’d attend college. Luckily, she learned about PCCAPS and found success in the hands-on program. Upon graduation, she was admitted to the University of Maryland, where she hoped to pursue mechanical engineering.

PCCAPS also offers a greater range of topics for Career and Technical Education and elective credits. The program has five course strands – business strategy; engineering; software development & technology; digital design & marketing; and teaching.

One challenge is access to technology and the Internet. School officials have understandably worked to place limits on Internet access to avoid inappropriate sites. But some protections slow down the coursework.

Another challenge is a lack of awareness. Many parents and education leaders are unfamiliar with PCCAPS. Business leaders are often unaware of the mutually beneficial partnership. But the idea is growing nationwide. PCCAPS is one of 13 active programs patterned after the original in Overland Park, Kansas—called Blue Valley CAPS. Five other CAPS programs are currently being developed across the country. But Park City is the only district in the entire state of Utah that has adopted the model.

Of course, CAPS may not fit every district. Parents, education leaders, and local businesses should investigate, first, whether it meets the needs of their students, and second, how it can complement local business. If innovations like PCCAPS teach us anything, it’s that people and communities are not standardized and that student-centered education should respond to individual need.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Christine Cooke. Thanks for listening.

This post is an edited transcript of the Sutherland Soapbox, a weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations. The podcast can be found below.

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