Sammamish High School students achieving collegiate dreams through PBL

Four years ago Sammamish High School officials rolled out a new educational plan with the help of a $5 million grant and a clear vision, redesigning curriculum to focus on problem-based learning.

Construction of the new Sammamish High School is on track to open this fall.

Four years ago Sammamish High School officials rolled out a new educational plan with the help of a $5 million grant and a clear vision, redesigning curriculum to focus on problem-based learning.

Also known as PBL in Sammamish’s halls, the commitment to education — which works to solve real-world problems, showcasing its application in the local and greater community — has given its students a chance to pursue careers they wouldn’t have thought possible before walking into the building.

Senior Jeyma Garcia, 18, will be the first member of her family to attend university next fall after she was accepted to the University of Washington Bothell’s registered nurse program.

For a shy student, “terrified” of speaking in front of class, the new structure of Garcia’s classes through PBL allowed her to voice her opinions in small groups. She said it forced her to learn to be comfortable with and trust in herself.

“I don’t think I could have been accepted or be where I’m at without the support of this school,” she said. “It’s given me the motivation to do something.”

Garcia said one moment in the last four years studying through PBL stood out to her most. In her advanced placement comparative government class they were examining what Russia would look like after the Putin administration.

As part of the class, a Russian studies major earning her master’s degree from UW joined the class discussion, sharing her insight and lending her expertise to the conversation.

“It was great to hear someone in college verify what we were studying,” Garcia said. “She didn’t just know what we were talking about, but agreed with most of it.”

Her classmate, 18-year-old Rosendo Ruiz, said that class showed him it was OK to take a chance and pitch his ideas.

A puzzle junkie, Ruiz said PBL opened his eyes to alternative methods for solving whatever problem was in front of him.

“If I didn’t learn the PBL basics, I wouldn’t even have thought of other ways to solve problems,” he said. “I want to study criminology and forensic science. I don’t think I could without PBL. I like finding other ways to solve a problem now.”

Building on success

Bill Palmer, Sammamish’s instructional technology curriculum leader, said the school’s commitment has given the student body the confidence to apply to college and pursue their passions.

According to a recent study, more than half of the student population stated if they went to college, they’d be the first in their families to do so, just like Garcia and Ruiz.

Next year, the school’s transformation will take physical form when the new 320,000-square-foot building opens, giving students access to learning spaces at every turn, Palmer said.

Built with PBL and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum in mind, the physical building will make it possible for even more cross-collaboration between subjects.

With the new building, the school also will offer new PBL classes, including robotics, CAD (computer-aided design) and some others still in the works, according to principal Tom Duenwald.

“We’re looking at all ways for the students to connect to the community and continue to work on real-world problems,” he said of the potential new classes and those already being offered.

Graduating senior Cory McCartam, 17, said he almost wishes he could attend another year to take some of the new classes and determine what he wants to do in the future.

“I came here because of PBL,” he said. “The idea that you’re going beyond just repeating facts, but being able to apply that knowledge in a real-world scenario.”

For their classmate, 18-year-old Tina Liu, who moved to Bellevue from Taiwan right before her freshman year, said PBL was instrumental in helping her understand English.

“Because we worked in groups, I wasn’t afraid to speak English … it really helped me out,” said Liu, whose application to attend Harvard next fall has been deferred. “I wouldn’t be where I am without this school.”


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