High School Electives Are Core

The Slice – January 2013: In Our High Schools | In Our Middle Schools | In Our Elementary Schools

What is an elective? It’s not easily defined, according to Palo Alto High School (Paly) Principal Phil Winston, since the Palo Alto School District changed its graduation requirements making some former electives like languages, visual and performing arts and career technical education (CTE) into core classes.

Paly currently offers 93 electives, not including multiple levels of foreign language. “Students can feel pressured by college admissions marketing to take electives that have the appearance of ‘rigor,’” Winston said. “We’d rather students spend a semester exploring a new side of themselves.

“Electives are core; they are the primary means to build additional capacity for learning within our students and PiE funding allows us to realize our vision of what a comprehensive education means,” he added.

Paly’s newest elective, Sports Nutrition, is entirely funded by PiE and launches this spring “after a 1.5-year effort to get it approved by the school board and on the schedule,” said CTE Teacher Theresa McDermott. She developed the course after attending classes on sports nutrition, culinary nutrition, and “Farm to Table” seminars at Johnson and Wales University in her “free time,” apart from teaching Foods courses, Interior Design and sophomore English.

“We looked at the number of serious athletes on campus, who recognize that nutrition gives them a performance edge, and how health-conscious our students are — we have over 600 bikes on campus,” Winston added. “We wanted to offer these them students a learning-intensive class with practical applications beyond after-school sports opportunities.”

The Sports Nutrition course features hands-on projects, like developing a nutrition plan optimized for a student’s specific sport or activity level and maintaining a healthy weight. “We’ll explore recipes for good-tasting, performance-enhancing foods, prepare the food and test them out on friends,” McDermott explained. Labs on the chemistry of nutrients will demonstrate “why certain ingredients are important to fitness and how we can combine foods to create a healthy diet. We will have labs where, for example, we will create our own power bars, and other pre-and-post-practice snacks to get kids pumped up to get through their sports activities and then be able to focus and do their homework.“

“What I really hope the students take away from the course is that if they understand what they are eating and how it affects them, they will be empowered to lead a healthy and active life,” McDermott concluded.

At Gunn High School, Principal Katya Villalobos also believes firmly in the transformative power of electives to shape a student’s high school experience. “Electives expand students’ ability to find a passion,” she said. “We have lots of electives because we have a 7-period day, which not all high schools have. We have time in our schedule for students to explore themselves through semester-long classes in the arts, music and engineering.

Villalobos believes electives build “crucial 21st-century capabilities,” including critical thinking, problem-solving, working in teams and project management. A Gunn student last year won a Lemelson-MIT award in the PiE funded “Project Lead the Way” program for creating an egg incubator for developing countries.

The first class in the Project Lead the Way program is “Introduction to Engineering”. Fresh from the high-tech corporate world in Silicon Valley, new Intro to Engineering teacher Kristina Granlund-Moyer said, “I know what employers expect in hiring young engineers. Some of this curriculum is brilliant, and will really prepare these kids for the career demands that lie ahead for them in the technology world.”

Tuesday, Nov. 20 was the “go-to-market day” for the class’ first big project: puzzle cubes. Students designed, engineered and built their wooden puzzles and created user-profile questionnaires to test-market the product at lunch on the Gunn quad in a “Puzzle Assembly Contest.”

Armed with questionnaires and timers, the students challenged passers-by to attempt to assemble the cubes. Questionnaire results were collected to help the product designers determine if there were any similarities among the winners.

Freshman Hugo Laboisse’s puzzle was solved in a record 8 seconds. His previous top customer had assembled the puzzle in 4 minutes. Another freshman, Alexander Bulanov, said the puzzle project is “very useful: it’s five interlocking blocks that fit together, no two of the same shape. We’ve gone through a design process and tested them for “interlockingness”, statistical measurement, and complexity. It’s good preparation for robotics and product design.”

Student Alex Rosenberg said the class was great – and not as hard as it sounds, “You have to be organized and know what you are doing,” he said. Brian Yeh, who was assessing whether his puzzle customers displayed a link between socio-economic status and speed of assembly, said he hoped there would be more real-world engineering projects like the puzzle cubes.
The omnipresent Ms. Granlund-Moyer, clad in jeans and a turquoise velvet blazer, scurried up and down the tables, handing out boxes of Skittles, Dots and Junior Mints to successful puzzle assemblers, and mending broken cubes. She observed: “This class is really an exploratory experience for students, some of whom are interested in the math side and others the design side. It’s the difference between wanting to work for Microsoft vs. Apple. We seem to have an even split in the classes.”