I found DPEA from a the book "The New Cool" which shares the story of Amir's FIRST Robotics team (the same league I coach with), his seniors, his mentor team, and their robot. The book positions FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) as the next varsity football, something that fully engages and challenges students at a high level. DPEA's FRC team, #1717, has been competing for many years at a high level.
As a FRC coach and a teacher, I wanted to see how Amir and team put school and FRC together. At first, I was a little surprised to find out that last season was their last year of FRC -- team 1717 no longer exists! However, with everything Amir explained to me about their program and all that I observed, I think it makes perfect sense for them to stop doing FIRST programs as part of the classroom experience. More about that and the new senior experience later.
DPEA gives up creativity for technical complexity, but then goes back to add in as much creativity as possible. For example, students build a glass-rod light sculpture. Every student uses an Arduino microcontroller, a set of LED lights, glass rods, and a block of plastic as a base. They use similar wiring and controls across all projects. This greatly simplifies the teacher time required to build the project resources and teach the entire class. It also allows students to more effectively help each other. This is necessary because the skills required to do this project are high: learning and using CAD software, milling out a block of plastic with precision, cutting and mounting the rods, learning the Arduino sketch language, learning how to wire LEDs, soldering and electronics layout, and creating the logic for the controls.
However, every sculpture has a different layout pattern of rods, different colors, and different timing patterns with the lights. Even for a single sculpture, students can create multiple different programs to run different patterns as you turn the knob on the side of the sculpture. Giving students this kind of freedom doesn't distract from the technical objectives above. However, this kind of infusion of art makes the project much more engaging and appealing than some of the PLTW projects.
One thing that is particularly impressive is the gender equity of the program, both in numbers and in practice. When I pushed more on this, he said that he used to teach "Physics" and it was 50% male / 50% female. Then, he created a new title for his course, "Engineering Physics", to better reflect what he was already doing. Only two girls were in the class. To fight this, he started inviting girls one at a time from his classes to join FRC, and from this core group, continued to advertise the program to more girls. As he developed the 9-12 program, he continued to lean on the girls he already had in the program to help tell the story so more young girls would sign up. He also made sure that projects deeply integrated the arts, something that is relevant to both boys and girls, but that tends to attract far more girls toward technical work. At this point, the program is self-sustaining. In a district with 1500 kids per year, there are 300 applications for the DPEA program with 100 accepted. The qualified applicant pool has a gender profile that matches the school. More than numbers, I see girls doing every task that boys do, and doing it at the same or high levels than boys. Though some groups are clumped by gender, girls and boys are not separated in their work as they tend to do on my robotics team. It is true, complete integration.
I enjoyed reflecting with Amir on some of the differences I saw between what he does and what other PBL programs seem to do. When he told me about the FRC robots, he talked about the precision of the parts they built and why it mattered. When he talks to students, he speaks in thousandths (of an inch), even to the point where he doesn't even say thousandths (instead just saying "650" or "give me 5 more") and students know exactly what he means. Yes, this is standard for machinists to use this as a unit of measurement, but he expects precise work from everyone around him. When things don't sound right, he slows kids down to debug and find the problem, looping back to the same group many times per hour to touch base. He moves fast, but he is always precise and exact, and his students and other teachers work the same way.
This culture extends into the way the program is designed: teacher and student minutes are better utilized here than any place I have ever seen people learning. While I was here, I saw no downtime -- classes rotate between the classroom spaces so that machines and computers are always fully utilized. Teams are further split down to pairs or individuals because there is too much work to be done to do it any other way. Students are always busy. They are not always speedy, as Amir and the others slow them down to make sure they do it right the first time, but they are efficient and they are constantly learning. The learning productivity here makes my classes look like a joke.
Back to the structure: the first three years have well-planned curriculum that all students work through. By the end of junior year, students are excellent at programming a microcontroller, wiring and soldering electronics, designing a part in CAD, and manufacturing nearly anything in metal or plastic. The kinetic art project below is an amazing example of the complexity of mechanical engineering they do, something comparable to my FRC students' dream to build "swerve drive" (module pictured as well -- both use similar mechanical principles). This provides the basis for the senior project.
For many years, Amir used FRC as the senior project. It gave students in-depth experience with many of the skills above in an exciting, high energy program. However, there were only ~10 students getting the most exciting, interesting part of the design process. In a cohort of 100 seniors, many were left machining spacers and lightening parts while most of their skills sat dormant. Last year, Amir moved to a senior project called the "Physics Carosel". The was much more effective at engaging all students by getting them to work in small teams with a very complex outcome. The final integration of the components at the end took more time than expected and left some students disengaged, but this year's new version of the project hopes to solve that. Having seen this thing run right in front of me today, you would be blown away by what an incredible piece of engineering and manufacturing this is.
One of the initially discouraging parts of DPEA is the money they seem to burn through. They have a $100,000 CNC monster router, a lab with 15 lathes and 15 mills (I would kill to take just one of each), a lab with a huge CNC mill and lathe, a laser cutter, 4 huge milling machines, two labs with 30 really intense CAD computers, a bunch of 3D printers, and other toys that make a nerd really jealous. Check out this facility:
The positive story is that it is not as expensive as it looks. The cheaper lathe is a little over $1000 plus hardware. The cheaper mill and digital readout are under $2500 (see Travers Tool). A lot of the other components would need major grants, but could come with time as a program develops and the need is more obvious.
Crunching the numbers further, Amir estimates the need for $1 million of operating expenses for his 400 kids beyond the districts' $8500 per-pupil-unit funding. This averages to an additional $2500 per student to cover all consumables and the extra staffing needed to make the program go. In total, with similar teacher salaries to Byron, this adds up to $11,000 per student per year to provide them with this experience, the same funding we already receive in Byron. However, like in most places, this money is pre-allocated to district administration, staff development, and teacher salaries, leaving little margin for program expansion. I would have to spend many more hours than I already have reading through all of our district finances and getting schooled by our business manager Jenn before I could pretend to understand it. The short of it is that this is very possible to pull off, and if it was achieved by pulling in some students from out-of-district via open enrollment (additional revenue with minimal new overhead), there might be cash freed up to make something like this work.
Final take-aways: DPEA is not a full school day program (yet), but they use the few hours they have with students at an incredibly high level, blowing away any school I have ever seen. The culture is focused on excellence, high performance, and precision. The students are incredibly engaged and act like professional engineers at an exciting job (so much so, that when discussing with Amir about internships that other schools do during the school year, I told him to just stick with summer internships because it would be a let-down for students to be away from here and at a job site). From a cost perspective, what they do is expensive, but not out of control. They spend about $1000 per student per class hour in the program for the school year, something that can be raised with grants + district support + private donors. With the money saved by abandoning FRC, this becomes slightly more feasible.
I think their next steps should be the construction of an "export" institute -- a team of two people who are grant-funded to take everything they are doing now and get it out into other schools. Amir wants to disrupt college since what they are doing is better than most colleges, but by making the resources available and getting training out there, high schools could also start adopting the model. It would take teams of very dedicated people at any given district to do this, but the vision of having so many students able to design incredibly complex machines at this age is amazing.