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From bike socks to clinical trials, Centennial students are solving real-world problems

The central Bucks County school district has joined the fast-growing movement toward project-based learning but with a capitalist twist that may provide a peek into the future of such programs: Working hand-in-hand with corporations and entrepreneurs on resolving real-world workplace dilemmas, rather than theoretical problem solving.

Team Uili member Jamie Gray presents during the CentennialX conference at William Tennant High School in Warminster, PA on August 17, 2017.
Team Uili member Jamie Gray presents during the CentennialX conference at William Tennant High School in Warminster, PA on August 17, 2017.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Making socks on a sewing machine was probably the last thing 17-year-old Shaina Gatton thought she would be doing when she signed up for CentennialX,  Centennial School District's innovative summer program that promised to pair students with high-tech industry mentors to solve real-world problems.

Gatton and two other teens had been given a mandate by the Bucks County entrepreneur funding their project to come up with a product that makes life better for cyclists. To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, the kids learned it was not about the bike.

They hung out at Keswick Cycle Shop, learned how to change tires, and then surveyed 8,000 bicycle enthusiasts and were surprised to learn, in team member Jamie Gray's words, that "for some reason, cyclists love socks." They also value safety, so the team came up with comfortable footwear that glows in the dark. Now, Gray's team not only has its first prototype for high-visibility socks – with nifty patterns such as doughnuts or pizzas amid bright fluorescent colors and reflective material built into the yarn – but dreams of launching a product line.

The central Bucks County school district has joined the fast-growing movement toward project-based learning, but with a capitalist twist that may provide a peek into the future: working with corporations and entrepreneurs on resolving real problems, rather than theoretical ones. An added bonus: The students were paid $1,500 for six weeks of work, even as CentennialX boosters say they are becoming better skilled and more desirable college applicants and members of tomorrow's workforce.

"In interviews, [colleges] ask what are your SAT scores, what clubs are you in, what do you do outside of school?" said Gray, 18, who is headed to Cornell University this month. "So when I pulled out my laptop and showed them what I had been working on they were really impressed. You end up with a product instead of a test score, which is so fulfilling."

Supporters say the program, which has six teams comprising about two dozen teens — including some recent graduates who wanted a leg up in careers — fosters creativity and invention that students just don't get sitting at a desk in a traditional classroom, and such efforts are expanding rapidly.

In Philadelphia, about 160 students from traditional public and charter schools across the city took part earlier this year in a problem-solving project called the Aspen Challenge, in which teams competed on eight-week projects that included reducing violence and recovering wasted food.

These efforts share a sense that classroom learning focused on traditional academic subjects, textbooks, and test preparation are not motivating today's students and do not foster the type of innovative thinking, teamwork, or communication skills that will be needed in the workplace.

"We have a challenge in our country, that students aren't engaged, they aren't excited about learning," said Vince Bertram, CEO of Indianapolis-based Project Lead the Way, which works with school districts nationally to develop project-based learning based on science and technology. Students in conventional classrooms, he said, are "just learning how to do school."

That is certainly a goal of CentennialX, but what is novel is its enthusiastic support from corporations, nonprofits, and entrepreneurs who support the program not merely as a learning exercise but because they believe hardworking teens can solve youth-oriented business problems that have stymied their adult employees.

Ignacio Jayo, the science teacher at Centennial's William Tennent High School who launched CentennialX three years ago, said sponsors like Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant, and PRA Health Sciences are eager to get young people involved. High school students are "unfettered by some of the thinking that adults get involved with," he said, while corporations are "looking for ways to innovate and they're thinking students have a much better chance of understanding the mind-set of children and parents."

Two of the CentennialX groups backed by Eli Lilly or PRA spent their summer developing tools aimed at helping child cancer patients better understand their treatment or finding new ways for giving legally mandated assent for clinical trials that children can relate to. Another team is starting a support group for children in clinical trials.

Jocelyn George, a 20-year-old William Tennent grad and University of Pittsburgh student who returned to CentennialX for the third time, showed off a prototype of a wooden box that her team has been creating for young leukemia patients. On top is a laser-cut image of a physician with the words "Dr. Hope Takes on Leukemia" and inside are games aimed at teaching children about the disease and treatments.

"In school, it's very different. They tell you what to do," said 18-year-old Vanessa Lakatosh, a William Tennent graduate bound for Holy Family University to study nursing. "Here … you go with your own ideas, and if you fail, you get back up."

Joe Kim, a senior adviser for Eli Lilly in clinical innovation, said he was excited when Jayo  approached him about the program three years ago, because he believed younger minds could help the firm do a better job helping pediatric patients.

"You see in the news, more and more, young people coming up with radically new ways of thinking in scientific and other areas," said Kim, whose employer spent $9,250 to fund a CentennialX team. "There's no monopoly on good ideas."

The bike-safety project was the brainchild of Scott Rakestraw, an Upper Makefield biotechnology entrepreneur and cycling enthusiast who said he was excited by Centennial's can-do approach to learning. Rakestraw said he thought, "How can I teach them what no one else is going to teach them in high school but will be critically important to them when they go out in the world?"

Jayo and CentennialX also worked this year with students and a teacher from the nearby Upper Dublin school district, and Jayo said he was eager to spread the concept to other districts.

"Everything's changing so rapidly that this is the future of learning for us," said William Tennent senior Jake Miller, 17, whose team came up with games and an app to help children in clinical trials. "I don't think of this as a workshop. I think of this as changing education."