Photos by Scott Buschman
Educators have always been resourceful and responsive to the varying needs of students — adapting lessons, searching for the right texts and tools, conjuring creative scenarios where students can explore and learn. In this sense, innovation is simply what you do every day.
There are also growing numbers of educators who go beyond “routine” innovation, exceeding what is considered possible, and extending the limits of the learning landscape. We salute a few such innovators in this, our third annual Innovation Issue.
Chris Collins, for example, knowing the intense connections kids make through team sports, created an athletic league for his continuation high school students when he found out there was no reason not to. Courtney Coffin jumped on Chromebooks accidentally delivered to her classroom to teach her special ed students how to blog, send and receive emails, and communicate in multiple other ways. Emalyn Leppard oversees the school garden — and now uses its bounty for monthly dinners prepared in a revamped home ec classroom by students and their families, whose live cooking demos showcase native foods and culture.
“People can share a piece of themselves that wouldn’t happen in an ordinary classroom,” says Leppard.
Innovators such as Leppard and the others we highlight share themselves — their knowledge, passions and personalities — in novel and nurturing settings to stir students’ imagination and spark new ideas.
Innovator: Dave Menshew
The outline of a body. Bloody footprints and shoe. Hair strands in a comb. A single earring on the floor.
It’s eerie discovering their classroom has been transformed into a gruesome crime scene, but students take it in stride.
Science teacher Dave Menshew asks them to figure out what happened to “Matthew,” a spoiled and unpopular young man who went missing after a wild party at his beach house and who later turned up dead. They review a list of possible “suspects,” don lab coats and goggles, then form groups to solve “The Case of the Missing Millionaire,” based on clues scattered around the lab.
Making science come alive through simulated pop culture scenarios is something Menshew has been doing for over a decade, as founder of the Forensics and Biotech Academy at Enochs High School in Modesto. Designed to stimulate student interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), the four-year high school program may be the only one of its kind in the nation, says Menshew. Initially, 156 students enrolled; now it’s close to 400.
“I think my classes are novel; they are not like other science classes,” says the Modesto Teachers Association member, who was raised in Modesto. “My students are doing really advanced stuff.”
Indeed, they are. Each year the Hitachi Corporation loans the program a $73,000 scanning electron microscope so students can study different types of evidence including fingerprints, hair, fibers and blood. Students also do DNA amplification using polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique used to copy a segment of DNA across several orders of magnitude into thousands to millions of copies. Since 2014, the program has had a highly equipped educational PCR lab, with each of its 10 lab stations featuring mini thermal cyclers linked to HP laptops for real-time experimental display.
Recently, Maya Lim, co-inventor of a new desktop 3-D bioprinter, delivered the first such unit in the Central Valley to Menshew’s classroom. Students use the printer to print bacteria, algae, proteins and food base materials.
Menshew also uses zombie simulations to study blood-spatter disease. In 2014, his students were invited to CSU Stanislaus to share their forensic activities at a public science outreach event. They set up classrooms as postapocalyptic scenes, with “zombies” prepared by professional makeup artists. The event attracted hundreds of visitors and engaged learners of all ages, and has been repeated at other outreach events.
To qualify as a California Partnership Academy program, 51 percent of the Forensics and Biotech Academy students are considered “at risk,” and Menshew understands this population well. Prior to teaching, he volunteered at a local juvenile justice facility to shift the path of offenders to jobs and careers. He found it so fulfilling that he sold his retail corporation (with sales in excess of $7.5 million annually), entered the teaching profession, and never looked back. That was nearly 25 years ago.
His program shows excellent results. Students score higher on standardized tests in multiple subjects compared with their same-school, district and state peers. According to state data, 78 percent of students in the program were found to be “advanced” or “proficient” in 2013.
His students share their knowledge by teaching lessons at neighboring elementary, middle and high schools. And Menshew recently created “Cocina Ciencia,” which teaches Latina mothers how to perform science experiments in the kitchen with their students.
As for what happened to Matthew?
“I never say who done it,” says Menshew with a smile. It’s mostly about the process, not the product, he explains, and this way he can reuse the simulation on a different class. He isn’t surprised that student groups analyzing the same evidence reach different conclusions about who is the murderer.
“There’s no right or wrong,” says Menshew, who is currently studying for a doctorate in education in organizational leadership at Brandman University. “It’s just like a real crime, where everything is a guess and you can get everything right and go to court and someone could walk. Science is amazing, but it can also be extremely subjective. Even the best forensics in the world is just a guess.”