America spends more dollars per student than any developed country except Switzerland while earning, at best, mediocre results. A recent report card from the OCED found American 15-year-olds were 25th among 34 countries in math, and only ranked average in science and reading. Our national response, embodied by recent laws such as the No Child Left Behind Act, has been to tighten teaching standards, increase testing, and expand the curriculum. But a crowd of new teaching initiatives are looking for other, more innovative ways. One unlikely path to success is building hybrid electric cars, and it’s proven so successful that a school based entirely around EV engineering is going to open soon in Philadelphia.
Simon Hauger, a Philadelphia-born and schooled engineer, made a career U-turn 14 years that landed him in one of his hometown’s toughest schools: West Philadelphia High School. A humbling first year teaching math, science, and engineering to inner-city students opened his eyes to the fact that the academic system—tests, memorization, and abstract problem solving—that he was trained in was never going to reach many of his own students. He needed something practical, like a car.
"School should be about kids solving real problems," says Hauger during a 2010 talk given at the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine. "I was amazed. These [students] were brilliant, smarter than engineers at GE. But when we sat in classroom they were ready to pull their eyeballs out. Stick them in the shop, and they were ready to solve very complex problems."
That started Hauger and his high school class on an improbable journey culminating in EV race victories over MIT, Cornell, and multi-million-dollar companies. Hauger’s Hybrid X Team’s first vehicle, an electric go-kart, was built during an after-school program. The next year, the students refitted an electric Jeep to win the Philadelphia science fair. A string of EV race cars followed. An electric Saturn that beat out Ivy League teams in the Tour del Sol. The teams most recent accomplishment, an EVX GT sports car for the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE, didn’t win, but still scored them an invitation to the White House.
Now Hauger, who drives a "super fast biodiesel Volkswagen Jetta" built by the team, is starting a school based on those same principles. The Sustainability Workshop is a privately funded initiative that he hopes will become a charter school or part of the Philadelphia School District by 2013. The Workshop is teaching 29 seniors from three Philadelphia high schools by using the "real-world problems" of energy efficiency and climate change. Two of their assignments have been reducing their school’s energy profile and boosting school bus route efficiency.
Hauger’s vision is not unique. Others teachers, like Eric Ryan, whose ideas are chronicled in the book Electric Dreams, teamed up with shop teacher Harold Miller to turn a team of students in a rural North Carolina high school into the region’s fastest electric racers, who beat out much better funded schools in their rebuilt 1985 Ford Escort called "Shocker." In shop, students struggling to pass standardized tests mastered practical problems involving electrical wiring, battery longevity, welding, and aerodynamics.
That same phenomenon is what got Hauger moving. "This idea of multiple intelligences really started to come to life for me," he says. "One of the things about project-based education is that people who support that don’t support basic skills. It’s quite to the contrary. We’ve seen amazing basic skills develop: public speaking , deep problem solving, and what I consider essential skills. It’s really about finding what kids’ interests and passions are, and tapping into that."