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.”
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.”