Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

High Tech High students building their way through science and humanities curriculum

There's creative learning happening this spring at Jacobs High Tech High in Liberty Station. Students are building their way through the biology and humanities curriculum. KPBS Education Reporter M.G. Perez tells us how hardware is making a difference in these classrooms.

There is some creative learning happening this spring at the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High in Liberty Station. A group of students is building its way through the biology and humanities curriculum.

Pat Holder is a veteran humanities teacher on the HTH campus who uses a nail gun, a hammer, and even a saw in his lessons. The tools are for the furniture Holder’s 11th-grade students are building while learning about the origins of life, including the Big Bang theory.

“Learning happens best through projects,” he said. “ And projects give us a chance to do hands-on work, design things, and bring them to life and we can do it all related to the content areas that we teach.”


Students in the High Tech High charter school system are used to unconventional learning, but this is really outside the box. Holder’s class started the semester designing and building a small handmade wooden box in preparation for the furniture they are creating now.

IMG_2687 (1).jpg
M.G. Perez
Belen Perea, 16, is a Jacobs High Tech High junior. She shows a picture of the wooden table her team is building, San Diego, April 13, 2022.

Belen Perea, 16, is a junior who said she’s learned a lot and gained some real scientific perspective working with wood.

“When you’re working with a piece of wood, this thing was alive. It had its place on the Earth for hundreds of thousands of years," she said. "Then it evolved for millions and millions of years to become the thing it is today and you are working with it to aid you in your daily life."

Down the hall, another group of students is designing and building more furniture, led by John Santos who has 18 years of experience teaching environmental science. There are tools hanging on every wall. Visitors to his classroom are often confused looking around the learning space.


“When they make the connection, they tell me, ‘I had this experience when I was in school and it was called woodshop.’" Santos said. "But what they come to find actually is that this is a biology classroom and an environmental science classroom.”

In the mornings, there are much more traditional lessons involving laptops and learning about data collection, science experiments, and assessments. But after lunch each day, students collaborate and create for almost two-and-a-half hours before the final bell rings. Isaiah Castro, 17, hopes to be accepted at the University of California, San Diego. He is taking honors math right now and building a table.

“You might see a table, but I see it as something super complex and it’s very interesting because this is a table but it came from basically nothing.," he said. "It started as an atom and turned into everything that’s around us.”

The classroom concepts aren’t always so abstract.

There is a large wooden canoe-shaped boat hanging from the ceiling that was built by some of Santos’ science students. He said there were a couple of lessons learned with that project.

“This learning experience was for a group of students that were investigating how humans have impacted our coastal environment,” Santos said. “And when you can design and build a boat as you’re trying to gain an understanding of how we’ve impacted our coastal environment, it makes it that much more real for you.”

Santos Class
M.G. Perez
John Santos teaches environmental science using woodworking in his curriculum at Jacobs High Tech High in Liberty Station, San Diego, April 13, 2022.

Students are also using cameras to capture stop-motion photography that will document every step of their wood-making projects.

All the furniture built this semester in the science and humanities classes will be sold at the end of the school year as a fundraiser. As for making a good grade in these classes, that is unconventional, too.

“The biggest thing we think about for success is engagement. We have learners of different talents of different levels coming into our space," Holder said. "So, I’m not going to ask them to answer a single question or do a single task."