Principal’s View: To Prepare Students to Enter a Tech-Focused Business World, Create Schools With the Workplace in Mind

NeoCity student works on a SMART display to analyze sequencing of the human genome (Justin Curtis for SMART Technologies)

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Consider the world students face when they graduate. For many, their choices lead to college, vocational training or manufacturing careers that rely heavily on advanced technologies — from robotics and 3-D printing to equipment powered by artificial intelligence. Two decades from now, their jobs will be even more tech-focused, as workplaces adopt innovations we’ve yet to even imagine.

Unfortunately, the U.S. educational system isn’t set up to provide instruction that matches that reality. Schools aren’t complex enough to prepare students for the working world while balancing their needs for connection and collaboration — and often don’t supply the technology and resources necessary for personalizing instruction and meeting students’ unique needs. Instead, many schools continue to bring kids into a classroom, present them with a canned curriculum, tell them to turn to page 90 and then wonder why they’re disengaged and ill-prepared for the careers that await them.

This is where partnerships with innovative education technology companies are critical.

In 2018, I became the founding principal of NeoCity Academy in Kissimmee, Florida, a high school that seeks to immerse students in a world of technology and equip them to quickly think their way through intricate challenges, while providing a solid academic foundation. Kissimmee is part of Osceola County, one of the most diverse in the state; 47 percent of students are Hispanic, and 43 percent qualify for free and reduced-price school lunch. 

NeoCity Academy is located in the county’s 500-acre NeoCity technology hub, which serves as an epicenter for high-tech innovation and business development. Like our namesake, we take a different approach to the role of technology in our everyday lives. The goal was not just to create a magnet school for students considering careers in science and technology, but to operate the school like the companies they’ll work for when they leave. Our building looks and operates more like a modern workplace than a traditional school. The same can be said for our curriculum, which we designed by asking, “How do Disney, SpaceX and Microsoft operate?” Our inquiry-driven curriculum is framed by our mission to have student outcomes impact the world around them.

So how do you create classrooms that reflect the workplace? Research shows that when students are active in their own education and understand why they’re learning something, they’re far more engaged. By giving students access to real-world problems, we’re creating a motivation for learning. For example, we partnered with imec, USA on a grant for a NASA tech flight to test experiments in microgravity aboard a Blue Origin suborbital launch. Eight student teams went through four professional-style pitch sessions, competing for two flight spots that will launch this spring. One of the finalist teams is studying fluid dynamics in zero gravity to determine how sound waves are impacted by the lack of atmosphere, and the other is working on how to promote purer crystallization growth in zero gravity to improve the effectiveness of specific medications. Through prototyping, testing and building phases, students are learning not only the fundamentals of physics from industry experts, but how to meet deadlines, work in a team and troubleshoot. 

Our school also encourages experimentation by designing a curriculum and grading system that enable students to experience failure safely. Our standards-based grading system prioritizes both academic achievement and noncognitive skills valued in the workplace, like participation, punctuality and preparation. While traditional grading usually grants one mark per assessment — and puts every one in the gradebook — we select specific assessments for grading that emphasize the most recent evidence of learning and proficiency.

The best companies do not fire employees when they get something wrong; instead, they are encouraged to innovate and look for a different outcome. If our students do not demonstrate proficiency, they get to try again after discussing their errors in reasoning. With the traditional bell curve distribution of grades, 50 percent of kids rank as average; surely the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies want better performance from their staffs. Focusing on learning, not a letter or number grade, lets students experience mistakes without fear of a failing grade. That school culture is built from the very beginning. During pre-admission interviews with students, we ask: “When you fall on your face, which is going to happen here, what are you going to do about it?” 

NeoCity Academy also taps technologies that reflect our vision of continuous improvement. For example, we use a digital learning system that lets students collaborate across devices and enables teachers to personalize content based on each student’s individual needs, interests and strengths. For example, teachers can use one overarching problem about the human genome and distribute questions of different complexity to various students based on their level of proficiency. After tackling the problem, students then push their answer back to the teacher’s device for immediate feedback.

Students also learn how to navigate technologies and processes that are embedded in the workplace. Students use SMART interactive displays to collaborate as teams and work through challenging problems. They use Revit for building 3D architectural models in math class. They use Office 365 in the same way I and the school staff do every single day: to communicate effectively with their teachers and peers over email, track tasks and deadlines, analyze data in Excel and advocate for themselves. 

Today’s problems can’t be solved with yesterday’s solutions. That’s why it is essential to provide students with quality teaching and the same high-tech educational resources they will be using once they graduate. The kids who walked into NeoCity Academy as freshmen in 2018 will graduate in June 2022 with a vastly different set of skills than most students in the U.S. Years from now, when they’re working for companies that rely on a skilled workforce, they’ll hopefully consider their time with us as a training ground for the real world.

Michael Meechin is the founding principal of NeoCity Academy in Kissimmee, Florida, a STEM magnet school that opened in 2018.

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