December 17, 2017
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Real World Now

EVSC's New Tech Institute uses project-based learning to connect students' skills to today
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At New Tech Institute, students learn with a project-based focus on science, technology and math.

It’s the highest ranked local school you’ve never heard of.

New Tech Institute was named by U.S. News and World Report as one of the Nation’s Best High

Schools in spring 2015. Located at 1901 Lynch Road in the same building as  the Southern Indiana Career & Technical Center, the institute was launched in 2010 as a project-based learning school with a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math.

It started with a small cohort of freshman, and in 2014 New Tech graduated its first class of 64 seniors. Today, more than 300 students attend New Tech, and its graduation rates have averaged above 95 percent.

New Tech graduates earned more than $1.2 million in scholarship offers last year, according to principal Chris Gibson, and 75 percent moved on to either a 2- or 4-year college.

"In most schools, engineering is an elective, something (students) only take if they’re interested,” says Gibson. “But here, all of our freshman take engineering. And we’re working to integrate science, math, engineering, and technology into everything, even English classes, history, Spanish, and art.

“It permeates the entire curriculum,” he says.

New Tech educator Eric Havener understands firsthand combining what he considers is the best of both worlds. After a few years of teaching manufacturing technology and engineering in Spencer County, he left to join the private sector working at AK Steel in Rockport, Indiana, and helped launch a woodworking company in Jasper, Indiana.

“I’ve always believed in project-based learning,” he says. “And here everybody thinks the way I do. It’s the perfect place for a teacher like me.

“We make school relevant to real life, and it’s a model that works very well for these kids.”

New Tech’s focus is on project-based learning, meaning that instead of traditional lecture, subsequent tests, etc., students are often working together, in groups, to solve “real-world problems.”  The curriculum is student-centered and often student-driven, says Gibson, in a technology-rich environment.

“They’re still learning those core subjects, like math, English, science, social studies, but they’re learning it through collaboration with their peers and through discovery,” says Gibson. “Basically, they’re solving a problem or answering a driving question. They’re still getting from point A to point B, it’s just a journey to get there, a more hands-on journey.”

Gibson, a former teacher and counselor with the EVSC, says a visit to New Tech would reveal students not sitting in rows but grouped together working with “laptops open” on some kind of project.

And subjects often are co-taught, he says, to offer different prospective as well.

“For example, right now in a co-taught English and history class, students are learning about the 1920s,” he explains. “The history part, they’re learning about the roaring 20s, the politics that went along with it. And on the English side, they’re reading ‘The Great Gatsby.’ Then, instead of taking a test, they’re putting together a radio show that involves interviewing F. Scott Fitzgerald. They’ll be including trends and news from the 20s, commercials. It’s blending the two to create a real-life product.

“They’re not just taking a multiple choice test.”

Bonnie Alcorn teaches English at New Tech and recently became a certified trainer for incoming New Tech teachers. Having taught in a variety of classroom settings — from college to at-risk youth and overseas — she has come to embrace New Tech’s hands-on approach.

“I love learning, and I’ve been in teaching for 31 years,” she says. “Every time something different comes along, I want to try it out, which is why I was so interested in New Tech.

“And I have never seen anything like this,” she says. “I feel like I have always done my best, which was pretty good, but then I came here and started seeing real results. I realized I’d been doing it wrong the whole time.”

Alcorn says students are immersed in a “rigorous and intensive” environment, one that forces them to hold not only themselves but also each other accountable for their work. They build each other up, share in responsibilities, and repeatedly achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves.

“It’s interesting and it’s fabulous,” she says. “Every school has its strengths, but as far as how to train students to work well in diverse environments, how to take on leadership roles, how to collaborate with people with different skills and interests, and be successful — there’s just nothing comparable.”

New Tech is part of a worldwide network of STEM-based learning centers. The first, Gibson says, was launched in Napa, California. Others have since opened in China and Australia, but many, he says, are located in Indiana.

“We have 28 of the 180 (New Tech) schools,” he said. “There is one in Columbus, Bloomington, although most are north of Indianapolis.”

Gibson says there also are New Tech schools in Owensboro, Kentucky, and others forming in Arkansas and Tennessee.

New Tech is open to any EVSC student, Gibson says, but specifically geared to those with an interest in the STEM areas or those who, perhaps, struggled in a traditional classroom setting.

And now with the Shephard Law Academy at Harrison High School and Medical Professions Academy at Central High School, two other EVSC innovative programs, students within the EVSC have options on where they want to attend high school.

“The EVSC has (implemented) innovative model schools and programs,” says Gibson, “so students can have exposure to different areas, all in an effort to broaden the choices they have.”

Students at New Tech, says Gibson, are of all ability levels, although many who attend often see their grade point average increase because they are in a more project-driven environment, one that many of them deem simply “more fun.”

“Even when I was a teacher, a lot of my focus was on, ‘how does this relate to real life?’” says Gibson. “And now, we have an entire school that is working to help kids relate to the world around them.”
    Drake Turner, a senior at New Tech, says it’s that project-driven environment that drew him into the school four years ago.

“I really wasn’t good with the whole ‘teachers lecturing and doing work by yourself’ thing,” he says. “I’ve always been a team player and better at a group learning experience.”

Classes usually start with 30 minutes of instructions before the teachers take on the role of facilitators, at which point the projects become “full hands-on” and the students rely on teaching each other, something Turner says he benefits from.

When he’s not in class or at work, Turner swims for Central High School. Because of its small size, New Tech pairs student-athletes with their home school. “We don’t have very many kids (at New Tech), but it’s not about that,” says Turner. “We’re all a big family. We’re anti-bullying and no one is left out of the circle.”

For more information or to tour New Tech Institute, contact school officials at 812-435-0967.

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