Mijares: Schools are finding new ways to connect student interests with college and career skills

When you close your eyes and picture a public school, what images come to mind?

Do you see chalkboards, workbooks and rows of wooden desks? Or do you see iPads, STEM projects and collaborative learning spaces?

An image of Orange County Superintendent Al MijaresIf you have children in school — or if you’re a student — chances are it’s the latter. That’s because public schools have undergone a transformational shift in recent years, and the advancing trajectory is worth taking a moment to consider.

Since the 1990s, educators and policymakers have talked a lot about standards, assessments and accountability, and justifiably so. These are important components of a first-rate school system. But it is our ability to engage students with real-world applications, collaborative assignments and project-based learning that is proving key to success in college, career and life.

Indeed, research around the psychological concept of “flow” shows how overall learning is enhanced when students are absorbed and energized by their work. This engagement, perhaps more than anything else, is what’s driving education forward, and examples abound in Orange County.

At Nicolas Junior High School in Fullerton, four students recently partnered with their teachers and industry professionals to build a smartphone app prototype that can identify poisonous plants in nature. As a prerequisite, they first had to learn coding and the programming language of JavaScript. In the Tustin Unified School District, a Beckman High junior has been honored through the Young Innovators to Watch program after developing a drone-based system to help emergency responders locate disaster victims.

Our students are demonstrating remarkable ingenuity, and central to these success stories are elementary, middle and high schools that are changing the rules, disrupting the status quo and serving as proving grounds for innovation.

Lake View Elementary School in the Ocean View School District recently adopted a STEAM focus, embracing new technologies and flexible learning spaces while adding engineering, robotics and arts labs. Edison High School in the Huntington Beach Union High School District boasts an Innovation Lab that encourages students to conduct real-world research in biology, chemistry, physics and robotics. Canyon High School in the Orange Unified School District offers popular aviation courses that pair flight lessons with science, technology, engineering and math instruction.

The list goes on of Orange County schools and programs that are finding new ways to connect the interests of students with real-life experiences and pathways to 21st-century careers. And whether they take credit or not, the teachers, administrators and support staff behind this work are strengthening our future workforce and changing lives.

In doing so, they’re also changing the way we think about public education.