Whitney Wisnom didn’t plan to go to college to study mechanical engineering—she was a soccer player—but that’s exactly where she’s headed as one of the first students to graduate from Design Tech High School (d.tech).
“I never expected I would do anything related to STEM. I was just that jock,” she says. But everything changed when, as part of an unusual educational partnership, Wisnom took her first wearable technology class with the Oracle Education Foundation.
The promising inventions Wisnom created, a heart-rate monitor sports bra and a GPS-enabled shin guard, are the products of design thinking, a human-centered problem-solving approach taught by d.tech and by the Oracle Education Foundation. The star forward is now on her way to New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on a soccer scholarship, but she’ll never forget the feeling she and her student teammates had as they refined their wearable tech prototype until it lit up like a billboard when a certain heart rate was achieved: “It changed my whole career. I became a leader at d.tech because of that.”
Teaching Students How to Think
Now elegantly curving along the Belmont Slough on Oracle’s headquarters campus in Redwood City, California, d.tech moved three times since its founding in August 2014 until, in January 2018, it became the only public high school in the US to be located on a tech company’s campus.
Here, d.tech—which is a free charter school and has no application process other than a lottery for California residents—can meld an educational model inspired by the famed Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school) with expertise from a tech giant. Wisnom’s transformation illustrates why diversity in technology results in real-world solutions: “As a jock, I’ve come into this tech world with a new perspective because a lot of people come with the mindset that they’ve always had tech as a plan. I didn’t, and so I come with ideas that weren’t necessarily thought of before.”
Tooling Around Campus
Though he had always been interested in programming, another new graduate, Alex Lederman, credits close proximity to technology professionals and resources for inspiring him to explore new terrain: robotics, Java, and the snazzy go-kart he engineered in d.tech’s decked-out Design Realization Garage and test-drove around the campus.
The d.tech emphasis on personalized learning meant Alex Lederman could pursue advanced physics as a freshman, while design thinking skills helped him, like Wisnom, contribute to projects that were anything but abstract. “Last year I worked with Oracle and National Geographic on a deployable water buoy that had a bunch of sensors in it,” he says. “It was really cool to take the skills that I learned in Oracle classes and the skills I already had, like programming, and then apply them to a real-world project testing water quality in the Belmont Slough.”
The high school realizes Oracle Executive Chairman and CTO Larry Ellison’s nearly 20-year-old goal of building “a school that teaches students how to think” on the Oracle campus, and CEO Safra Catz’s vision of involving Oracle employees in teaching. During the course of the academic year, Oracle Education Foundation instructional staff and Oracle Volunteers help students design, build, and code prototype solutions during four “intersession” periods, each lasting two weeks. Learning with real practitioners goes beyond a theoretical education in computer science or electrical engineering, because students learn from professionals who exercise those muscles every day to solve real problems for real customers.
“Being an intern at Oracle has made me a better leader, a better public speaker, and more sociable,” says Lederman, who will study mechanical engineering at Purdue University. All that, but without any undue pressure, he says: “This school is very not focused on pressuring students to do what they have to, but more to do what they want to. So for the past four years, there hasn’t been a single time when I’ve had to sit in my room and hate being in school. It’s more that the homework that I’m doing is a project that I’m super interested in.”
At the June 23 graduation ceremony, Catz praised the founding families and staff for their courage in creating d.tech, and the Education Foundation for creating the backbone of the Intersession program. “This follows something I learned a long time ago about my mentor, Larry Ellison,” she said. “What I’ve learned about him all these years—what distinguishes great entrepreneurs and leaders and people—is the courage that they show to see something that was not there and believe that it is possible.”
Indeed, Wisnom can point to something tangible that she first saw in her mind’s eye four years ago, when the founding class of 2018 began to help design the purpose-built school facility. It was the vision she and a friend had for a catwalk across the open ceiling in the building’s entrance—conceived during her “architecture phase” when she was 14—that is now a reality: “Every day we walk in and see that and go snap that was us.”