More Indy students will solve challenges, mysteries as project-based STEM courses expand

PHOTO: Scott Eliott
Harshman Middle School is one of five schools in IPS using Project Lead the Way. The program will expand to as many as 20 more schools next year.

At the start of each year, Carissa Prater sets up a mock crime scene in her high school science office.

There’s a body sprawled across the floor and tidbits of evidence throughout the room — a syringe, a toppled table dripping with blood and a nearly empty glass of orange juice. Her biomedical engineering students are given a simple challenge: figure out what happened.

Over the course of the next two semesters, the teens must perform a series of tests, from determining whether a small pile of pills found near the body are prescription or illicit, to fingerprinting the glass and testing for infectious diseases, said Prater, who teaches at East Noble High School outside Fort Wayne.

The students must answer a crucial question: how did the woman die?

“This is not like any class I’ve ever taught before,” Prater said.

It’s an unusual kind of class — but ones like it are about to become a lot more common in Indianapolis.

The course Prater teaches is designed by Project Lead the Way, a non-profit organization that provides training and curriculum for project-based courses in engineering, computer science and biomedical science. The courses challenge students to work together to solve a complex problem, teachers say.

Indianapolis Public Schools plans to dramatically expand its partnership with Project Lead The Way next year thanks to a $250,000 grant from American Structure Point, an Indianapolis-based engineering firm.

“The STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) emphasis is really the 21st century curriculum,” said Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett at an event announcing the grant. “This kind of emphasis needs to be made all over Marion County.”

(Read: Partnership merges high school AP courses, applied science.)

Project Lead The Way is used in schools across the country, offering courses for students from elementary school through high school. IPS currently uses the curriculum in five schools including Harshman Middle School and Arsenal Technical High School. The grant funding will allow the district to expand it to any school where leaders are interested in participating, district officials said.

The district expects as many as 20 additional schools to offer the courses next year, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

“This is an opportunity to extend the reach of STEM education in our classrooms,” Ferebee said. “This is just the beginning for IPS.”

The grant won’t fund biomedical courses for high schools, like the one Prater teaches, but it will promote similar courses in engineering and computer science, in which students work together to solve a problems. Schools can receive up to $15,000 to help launch new programs and schools already offering the courses can receive up to $5,000 to support existing programs.

Accepting the grant is a big commitment for the district, because schools must pay annual participation fees ranging from $750 to $3,000 per program. But the funding is significant because training teachers and buying equipment are the biggest barriers to offering the program, said Ben Carter, director of career and technical education for the district. Once schools are up and running, sustaining the courses is relatively affordable, he said.

The district is already planning to add Project Lead The Way computer science courses at Arsenal, which currently offers only engineering and biomedical science, and Northwest High School next year, Carter said. Now it has the funding to offer courses at other high and elementary schools as well, he said.

Offering STEM education in earlier grades can help draw in students that might shy away from the fields, such as girls and minority children who have historically felt unwelcome in those careers, he said.

“By exposing students this early, they get more comfortable with it,” Carter said. “(It) will only strengthen the career pathways at the high school levels.”

Even if students don’t choose to pursue the fields that they study in Project Lead the Way, Prater believes the courses help students develop valuable skills. To solve the crime mystery in her class, for example, they must learn to research questions on their own.

In typical courses, students are given information in worksheets and textbooks that they regurgitate for tests, said Prater, who also teaches biology and chemistry.

“This class is not like that,” she said. “I don’t spoon feed them anything.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”