Mountain View Voice

News - September 21, 2012

Teens embrace hands-on health care class

by Nick Veronin

About halfway through class at Los Altos High School, sophomore Chris Styner has nearly immobilized junior Manuel Padilla, working a series of straps over the boy's chest and around his arms and legs. Teacher Darren Dressen looks on approvingly, giving pointers.

"Here, Chris," Dressen says. "I made the same mistake. You have to do it like this."

Padilla is strapped into what is known as a "spine board" — serving as the guinea pig in one of many exercises taking place around the classroom.

The two boys are working on the sports medicine module, one of 10 in Dressen's health science career class — a new, district-run career-training course on the LASD campus.

The teacher bounces from station to station, answering students' questions about words they don't understand and demonstrating procedures, all the while helping the teenagers get a better idea of the sorts of jobs available — and maybe even sparking an interest in pursuing a career in health care.

The health science career class is a very hands-on experience, which may help develop students' interest in the more abstract scientific principles required to become a nurse, a phlebotomist, a pharmacist or an EMT.

Across the room, a girl and her partner are fishing around in a fake lung, using a video-camera-equipped endoscope to extract something that was accidentally inhaled. Nearby, two girls have just drawn "blood" from a realistic model of a human arm. And outside, a group of boys use a barbeque lighter to burn different kinds of cloth, recording how each material — polyester, cotton, wool — responds to exposure to flame.

Most of the kids in this class would never have signed up for a basic biology, chemistry or other science class. "It's not that they aren't capable, it's just that they don't want to watch lectures, and here they're doing things with their hands, they're more active," Dressen says.

"Does that get them a little bit motivated? Maybe now they see a pathway," he says. "Now it's like, 'If I take this and this, then maybe I can get into nursing schools.'"

This is certainly the aim of the modules. According to the website of Paxton/Patterson — the education company behind the Health Science Career Program and several other hands-on, career-oriented teaching sequences — five of the top-10 most in-demand jobs in the next decade will be in health care.

Both Styner and Padilla say they are happy to be learning medical science with Dressen.

"This was different from any other science class where you sit there, watch movies, take notes," Styner says. "Here, it gives you more of an idea what it's actually going to be like."

"This class is really fun," says Padilla, who reveals that he wants to be a paramedic so he can save lives and avoid a career "stuck behind a computer."

It is a sentiment shared by other students in Dressen's class. Bo Ryan is a sophomore and a self-proclaimed "kinesthetic learner," who says she signed up for the class because, "I knew it was a lot of hands-on and I thought I'd enjoy it."

And it is when the kids are clearly enjoying their activities that Dressen gets the chance to subtly nudge them toward the types of classes they may have never considered before. When a boy asked him a question about a computer-based exercise on DNA analysis, Dressen casually notes that if the student takes a biology class offered by a different teacher at LASD, he would be able to use the machine that the computer program was only simulating.

"What we have a lot of times is that these students don't see how the curriculum they are learning can actually help them get to where they want to be when they graduate high school," says Wynne Satterwhite, principal of LAHS. "If they don't see the connection, they're not going to put the time and effort in to being successful."

Dressen, who worked for close to 15 years as a chemist for a Bay Area pharmaceutical company, says he hopes the district will continue to grow the program, perhaps turning it into an "academy" — a multi-year sequence that could give students the skills to get an entry-level job right out of high school.

Health science career training classes could function a lot like the auto-shop classes of the 21st-century, he says.

"What I like about this class is that it's sort of taking that whole concept up a notch," he says. "By the end of the year they're actually going to learn some pretty complicated techniques. The kids will say, 'Oh, I made a stent and heart valve, and there will probably be kids in bio who don't know what that is.'"

"We still want them to think about college," he says. Still, offering such an academy would be great for the students for whom a four-year college — and even community college — is not on the horizon.

"We want them to see that there's things that they can do, that they're capable of doing, in science that don't involve getting advance degrees," Dressen says.

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