Engineering Education

Schools across the area increase their focus on
digital innovation and teaching technology.

By Elizabeth Brignac



Last year, seventh- and eighth-grade students at Carroll Magnet Middle School in Raleigh got a chance to design an ideal school—a school tailored to meet the specific needs of its community. 

In the summer of 2018, Carroll teachers Meredith Pinckney and Munroe Buie participated in the WakeED Partnership Summer STEM program, through which they learned how to develop tech-oriented, project-based learning opportunities for use in their classrooms. These kinds of projects ask students to use problem-solving skills and technological tools to address real-world challenges. During the 2018–2019 school year, the teachers got to see their project-based learning design in action. Southeast Raleigh Elementary School was being built that year, so Pinckney and Buie asked Carroll students to develop the school they would build if they were in charge of the project.

The students used digital research tools to investigate southeast Raleigh community needs. They then used a wide variety of digital resources to design an ideal school on a virtual site identical to where the actual school was being built. 

At the end of the project, the students (who knew nothing about the plans for the real school) got to tour the completed Southeast Raleigh Elementary School. They were excited to see that the real school turned out to share many qualities in common with their vision. “They included things like community kitchens and computer labs, and large media centers with workspaces,” Pinckney says. “They shared a lot of commonalities…so [the students] were able to see the real-world applications of what they were exploring.” 

This project exemplifies a digital technology teaching approach that many schools in the Wake County–area are taking. Increasingly, both private and public schools place great emphasis on project-based digital learning that utilizes local resources, fosters creative thinking, addresses real-world challenges, and requires collaboration.

Problem-Solving Skills

reedy creek magnet middle school mechatronics teacher ron boehm speaks to students at the magnet, early college, and year round schools fair at southeast raleigh magnet high school. Photo by thomas cooper/christine sachs

reedy creek magnet middle school mechatronics teacher ron boehm speaks to students at the magnet, early college, and year round schools fair at southeast raleigh magnet high school.
Photo by thomas cooper/christine sachs

“In the area of technology, things change so much,” notes Karen McKenzie, director of technology and innovation at Cary Academy, “that by the time you finish learning whatever that program was, either an update happens, or the program has changed, or it’s no longer the flavor of the month. But teaching kids how programs work in general, and teaching kids how to attack a problem…that is a different way that will not only help them for today, but [will also help them] approach problems for the future.” In addition to keeping students current on today’s digital tools, technology-focused schools emphasize teaching students to think about these resources in ways that are flexible and productive.

The Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) and many local private schools emphasize the 4 Cs: four abilities that the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has identified as most essential for today’s K–12 students.

These skills—communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity—build the context in which many of today’s Raleigh-area students learn about and interact with digital technology. 

In teaching these skills, schools are emphasizing new ways to solve problems—approaches that are specifically relevant to the methods that many twenty-first century businesses use to deal with challenges. Reedy Creek Magnet Middle School in Cary, for example, teaches students to approach all subjects using computational thinking. Students learn to solve problems by thinking like computers: breaking down the problem into manageable parts, recognizing patterns in their data, creating principles based on their analysis, and building algorithm-like, step-by-step solutions to the problem. Reedy Creek, which won the Magnet Schools of America’s New & Emerging Magnet School of Merit Award in 2019, emphasizes computational thinking’s potential to enhance critical thinking skills. This approach also builds communication skills, since students have to be able to communicate clearly about the problem and the steps to solving it in order to enact solutions. 

Learning computational thinking also benefits students who aspire to tech-oriented careers. “They can understand what’s going on inside the computer. They’re thinking like a computer…So if they do decide to go into a digital field, that’ll be a big bonus for them because that’s what companies are looking for in their future workforce,” says Christine Sachs, Reedy Creek’s magnet coordinator. Tech instructors at Saint Mary’s School, Athens Drive Magnet High School, Ravenscroft School, and Cary Academy stress computational thinking, and they also emphasize design thinking—an approach similar to computational thinking that focuses heavily on audience needs and on experimenting with different solutions to problems. “The design thinking process has been a game-changer for our school,” says Leslie Owen, Saint Mary’s dean of teaching and learning.

Working with Tools

If we want students to think critically and communicate ideas effectively, it helps to give them access to a wide selection of tools with which to work. Most of the schools interviewed for this article aim to expose kids to diverse technological tools that support different academic tasks. “We’re trying to get away from having teachers, or even students, use technology just for the sake of using technology,” says Sarah Loyola, director of digital technology at Ravenscroft. “It has to serve a purpose.” 

Montessori schools focus heavily on student-driven, independent learning, so The Montessori School of Raleigh focuses on giving students access to a broad selection of digital options. “We encourage students to delve into topics that they are passionate about,” says Melissa Edwards, director of educational technology. “And within the learning, they are also figuring out the best technology tools in the moment that match their education need…They’re like, ‘I have this problem. I have something I need to research and learn about. I know this wealth of tools that are available to me. Which one is the best?’” 

The schools offer students tools that range from standard Google suite apps and word processing systems to options that support dozens of academic and professional fields. McKenzie says, “We try to expose them to all different areas and all different tools within technology, whether it’s office and production software…browser- or search engine–related, to having experiences with AR [Augmented Reality], VR [Virtual Reality], and AI [Artificial Intelligence].” 

Some of these tools are very cutting-edge. At Athens Drive, which focuses on medical sciences and global health initiatives, Tonya Hinton, the school’s magnet coordinator, teaches with zSpace units, which are computers with augmented reality capabilities. Students can look at a zSpace computer screen with special glasses, use a stylus to pull out an image, and interact with the image, taking it apart and viewing it from different angles. Hinton offers one example of how the school has used this technology: “Our chorus students were trying to learn about vocal health. They were worried about how to take care of their voices; their instrument. So I brought them into the zSpace room, and we actually pulled apart what’s going on in your vocal cords, because I have the 3D model, and they can actually see it in action.” 

Athens Drive isn’t the only school exploring AR and VR options with students. Ravenscroft is purchasing a class set of VR goggles and adding a room in their technology center for VR experiences. The school hopes to train both teachers and students to develop their own VR programs in the near future.

Athens Drive magnet High School Student Chase Graham participates in a virtual lightsaber battle at the school’s 2018 Stem Wars Day, thanks to NC State’s Computer Science program. Photo by Paul Cory/WCPSS Communication

Athens Drive magnet High School Student Chase Graham participates in a virtual lightsaber battle at the school’s 2018 Stem Wars Day, thanks to NC State’s Computer Science program.
Photo by Paul Cory/WCPSS Communication

Real-World Challenges

The Triangle is rich in opportunities
for students to work with leaders in innovative technology. These leaders frequently volunteer their time to mentor students in project-based learning that tackles real-world challenges.

The Wake STEM Early College High School, for example, which earned the Magnet Schools of America’s 2019 Secondary Magnet School of Merit Award, works with a robust business advisory board to offer its students chances to solve real-world problems. Focusing on the National Academy of Engineering’s 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century, the school asks students to complete small-group, integrated-curriculum projects designed to mimic industry projects run by professional teams. Linda Brannon, the school’s STEM coordinator, offers an example: “Our tenth-graders do the One Health Project, where they have to come up with a medical device that will solve a potential problem—say in diabetes, or with heart disease or blood pressure, or whatever. And these teams, whether it’s through math, computer programming…they’re using the digital resources in a project-management style.” Other grades focus on challenges related to nuclear energy prolifer-ation and providing global access to clean water. Upper-class students use the project management skills they develop through these projects in internships with businesses across the Triangle. 

Saint Mary’s and Ravenscroft both offer their students opportunities to work with local businesses toward building solutions for actual challenges these businesses are facing. Saint Mary’s offers Pitch Night, a night when eleventh-grade students pitch business solutions to representatives from industries across the Triangle. The students propose solutions for businesses exploring new ways to tackle problems. Leslie Owen says that student teams use design-thinking processes to come up with their proposals, which the businesses receive with great respect. 

Ravenscroft had a similar experience last spring with a group of seniors who partnered with Citrix. Four teams presented solutions to a real problem that Citrix was tackling. “The people at

Citrix were blown away by the innovative ideas of the students,” Loyola says. “They actually felt that they could run with several of them.” Based on the success of this project, Ravenscroft will offer Entrepeneurial Mindset this year, a course in which students will partner with local businesses on similar projects.

instructors at ravenscroft, carroll,hopewell academy, and cary academy have noticed an uptick in the number of female students registering for computer science classes since appointing female technology leaders. Photo courtesy of wake STEM Early college high school

instructors at ravenscroft, carroll,hopewell academy, and cary academy have noticed an uptick in the number of female students registering for computer science classes since appointing female technology leaders.
Photo courtesy of wake STEM Early college high school

Women in Technology

Women are underrepresented in STEM fields, so most schools interviewed for this article encourage women to engage digital technology. They offer extracurricular clubs like Girls Who Code, ChickTech, and other girl-focused computational and programming clubs. Most of the schools also have women running digital instruction and technology programs. Having that kind of visible role model makes a difference. 

“We have noticed that since we moved to a female faculty  member in our middle school, that coming up into the upper school this year, we have a lot more females registering for computer science courses,” says Loyola. Instructors at Carroll, Hopewell Academy, and Cary Academy also emphasize the importance of having visible female technology leaders on campus.  

Schools are taking proactive approaches to encourage girls to take technology-oriented classes. Ravenscroft, for example, has addressed low female enrollment in its Middle- and Upper-School computer-related electives by making coding classes mandatory rather than optional in Lower School. They hope that with this change and others they are enacting, girls at the school will grow up thinking of programming as something that everyone does rather than as a

gendered subject. Saint Mary’s, likewise, has worked to get ahead of low enrollment in its tech classes. This year, the school has added courses in coding and computer science that had not been successful when they were offered before. The courses are gaining traction now, partly due to the school’s having introduced coding in various positive contexts—coding days, female technology speakers, etc.—during the semesters before they reintroduced the classes. 

Changes Today

We tend to talk about kids in terms of their future contributions to society—but students at these schools are already using digital technology and project-based learning to make real changes in their communities. Dr. Sandra Mitchell, the new technology coordinator at Hopewell Academy,  says that one of her main goals is communicating the following idea to students: “Being able to know that you can be able to change the world with one simplistic technology enhancement, change, or invention.” These students are getting that message. Last spring, for instance, the Reedy Creek Girls Who Code club coded a chatbot, an AI program that can simulate conversation via messaging. The bot, which remains active, offers students study preparation tips for the end-of-grade tests. The program is solid, and the bot’s test preparation advice is excellent. It can offer genuine help to students who choose to access it. 

At Athens Drive, students have used project-based learning assignments to benefit their school and their fellow students. One group of students last year focused a semester-long senior project on getting solar panels installed at the school—figuring out permitting, energy needs, cost-benefit analyses, and other challenges. The solar panels have been installed and are saving energy at the school. Another senior group built a VR program that teaches useful life skills to special-needs students. The team worked with the students to see what they needed and created a product designed to meet those needs—one that their fellow students can genuinely benefit from using. 

Offering approaches to learning with real-world results means that students don’t have to wait for adulthood to contribute to their communities. This kind of educational programming means that students start today on enacting the changes they want to see in the world.