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STEM gap

This tech academy is using project-based learning to close the STEM gap

The Chicago Tech Academy has partnered with industry mentors to help students develop real-world skills

Across the country, more and more schools are implementing project-based learning and forging partnerships with businesses to help students build real-world skills to succeed in college and the workforce.

Take Chicago’s Chicago Tech Academy High School for example. While ChiTech, as the school is known, aims to help students become leaders, it also seeks to increase the number of minority and low-income students pursuing STEM in college and the workforce.

Since 2009, the school’s graduation and college enrollment rates have steadily increased. School leaders focus on closing the technology gender gap by teaching female students to code and build websites and apps.

Some of ChiTech’s success lies in its partnership with the local tech industry. Professionals mentor students and guide them as they innovate, develop entrepreneurial skills and real-world experience.

“Part of our curriculum design is project-based learning. We try to design our curriculum around how the real world functions,” said Linnea Garrett, ChiTech school director. “We really believe we can ground meaning behind the curriculum when there are real-world applications. Not only are science classes investigating questions and finding solutions, you’ll also encounter that in your English, fine arts and social studies classes. We try to guide students through interdisciplinary work.”

Next page: How industry partnerships target the STEM gap

SAP, one of ChiTech’s tech partners, provides sustained support for the school through employee-student engagements that are intended to equip ChiTech students with the skills they need to confront global challenges and thrive in a digital economy.

“Part of SAP’s mission focuses on engaging with the next-generation workforce and helping them understand the requirements that will be placed on them,” said Pat McCarthy, an executive at SAP Ariba and a member of the school’s board. “STEM is a big focus for us.”

SAP employees and ChiTech students work together through one-on-one mentoring and day-long engagements where they mock up and develop products and ideas, such as apps they pitch to SAP executives.

Industry professionals also help students develop an entrepreneurial and workforce mindset and teach them how technology can help clients in different industries take advantage of various market opportunities.

“We’re helping students understand their brand and why it matters,” McCarthy said. “I think what we see developing here is a very symbiotic relationship. We’re helping the students grow and learn, but we’re also helping our customers in the industry in the sense that we have to get these kids interested in tech earlier.”

The industry partnerships also help ChiTech’s teachers ensure their lessons reflect the real world.

“We engage the adult-to-adult connections as well, such as focusing on ways to make the curriculum more meaningful,” Garrett said. “That has really driven our ideas around innovation and creativity. We take a lot of technology principles and put them in our curriculum. There’s lots of critique and feedback, and teachers revise things based on what did and didn’t work.”

Students benefit from their teachers’ knowledge along with the industry knowledge that mentors bring with them.

“Design thinking, collaboration, all these things we know as adults that make us better at what we do — we have to put into our classroom. Our students deserve that,” Garrett said.

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