Jackson Langlois, a junior at Purdue Polytechnic High School’s (PPHS) north campus in Indianapolis, didn’t feel challenged in his earlier schooling. Though his grades were good, he was not enjoying himself. “My creativity wasn’t brought out,” Langlois said.
But PPHS, a community charter founded by Purdue University, offered him a winning combination: project-based learning with tangible impact. About a year ago, with guidance from local business partner Tinker Coffee, Langlois and his classmates created a school coffee shop where they sell snacks and drinks.
“I find it super-cool that a year ago this was an empty room and now it’s full,” Langlois said.
Projects like this are a key element of the larger strategy: to serve the wider community by building Indiana’s STEM workforce.
“The heart and mission behind [PPHS] is increasing the number of underrepresented students who can get into Purdue University or a high-quality school,” said Keeanna Warren, the current associate executive director of PPHS, who will become the executive director effective in July.
The first PPHS school opened in 2017, and the community charter has grown to three sites serving 1000 students in total: two in Indianapolis and one in South Bend. Demographically, 36% percent of PPHS students are white, 34% are Black or African American, and 23% are Hispanic or Latino.
Purdue University supports PPHS students by inviting them to take summer courses–including dorm stays–for free, and offers seniors preferred admission to nine of its 10 campuses.
Already, Langlois has earned free college credits through Purdue. Last summer he went to Purdue for a week to take class and experience a taste of campus life. This coming summer, he’ll be back again, for four weeks.
Learning at PPHS: STEM-focused, Project-based, Community-Driven
To engage students and prepare them for life after high school, PPHS breaks the mold of traditional schooling. Teachers are known as coaches and the learning environment is flexible and personalized. Traditional classes don’t exist; students earn their diplomas through hands-on, STEM-focused projects.
Each student joins a design team to work on projects tackling real-world problems mapped to state learning standards and focused on math, science, and engineering. The projects come from connections with community partners, from Tinker Coffee to pharma giant Eli Lilly, and students often take part in the initial challenge design process as well as building solutions.
And indeed, the projects are super-cool. In May, PPHS will take part in Purdue engineering’s annual evGrandPrix, an electric go-kart race for high school and college teams. While the racing is exciting, the real work happens as teams design and build their vehicles to demanding technical and safety specifications. Teams must also submit a report showing how they applied STEM principles to improve their kart’s performance, and create a marketing video showing their outreach to their local community.
Even less-glamorous projects have practical benefits. For example, to understand economics, Langlois and his peers were tasked with living out their financial futures based on their dream jobs. The project included figuring out savings, investing, and taxes based on the projected earnings of that career.
“They always tell you ‘you don’t learn how to do taxes in school.’ Which I always thought would be the case, but I did learn how to do my taxes and now I’m applying that because I have a job now,” Langlois said.
Deepening Community Ties through Service, Mentoring and Internships
Learning projects can also become opportunities for community service. For example, in Indianapolis students tackling food insecurity worked with Gleaners Food Bank to assist families in need. To go deeper, students meet with mentors, attend job shadowing and, as seniors, take part in internships.
Students connect with community leaders or mentors for networking and growth opportunities that sometimes last beyond graduation and the walls of the school, Warren said. The relationships help students build essential social capital and connections they’ll need for future career networking.
Students are matched with community leaders who share their passions. PPHS partners with more than 20 corporations, from Eli Lilly to Salesforce. At the same time, each school site develops its own relationship with local businesses and community leaders on the ground. This allows each site to engage authentically with the local community, Warren said. Additionally, twice a year students have work learning days where they job shadow.
Like many students at PPHS, Langlois is planning to do an internship his senior year. He will likely spend half days at a civil engineering firm, his preferred career path.
Langlois was drawn to PPHS in part because of its connection to Purdue. Now that he has already earned nearly 10 credits and gotten to know the school, he’s just as eager to attend as he was when he started.
All signs look promising for him to achieve his dream. Data from the PPHS class of 2022 show impressive successes. Two-thirds of the class chose to continue on to college, whether in two- or four-year programs. And one-third of the grads–39 students–were accepted to Purdue.
Last year, 86 students across all years and campuses earned college credits.
“Our students are spectacular,” Warren said.
Editor’s Note: For more on representation in STEM, read this profile of NASA’s Diana Trujillo. Learn more about bringing high-quality STEM experiences to your community here. Within Indiana, Excel Center brings a high-quality community charter experience to adults looking to enhance their educational and career credentials.
Photos courtesy Purdue Polytechnic High School.