Rockets that fly 20 miles high. Prosthetic devices created with a 3-D printer. Food scrap that is converted into fuel.

These might sound like the work of scientists or maybe projects from a graduate school program. In fact, these are the types of challenges students solve in Dr. Nghia Le’s classes at the High School for Engineering Professions (HSEP), a small school within Houston Independent School District’s Booker T. Washington High School. HSEP serves between 200-300 students, the majority of whom are students of color.

Dr. Le’s brings to life education buzzwords. His approach is hands-on and project-based, and it promotes a growth mindset and real-world applications. Dr. Le has taught at HSEP for more than 11 years and his courses are at the heart of the school’s curriculum.

“In my class, students can’t sit there and say, ‘I finished my work.’ Or ask the classic question: ‘Why are we learning this?’ In my class, it’s obvious,” Dr. Le told our team.  “Students deal with things being done by engineers right now. They do things that are research-oriented with problems that are open-ended and don’t have solutions. Students explore different solutions, collaborate and once they figure out part of the problem we learn how to improve on their solutions.”

In a recent year-long project, Dr. Le’s students built a prosthetic arm for a local child. Students met with the child and her family and then worked in teams, using design software and 3-D printers, to create a prosthetic arm that specifically met the girl’s needs. “Students need to be able to do long-term work over months and years. A lot of times, problems can’t be solved in a day or two,” explains Dr. Le. “They need to learn they will struggle with solutions and solutions don’t come easily. It can be difficult and challenging.”

Dr. Le’s classroom mirrors the work environment of engineers. For example, he co-created a project with a school in New York City so that students could learn how to collaborate and communicate long distance—through e-mail, Skype, telephone, Google Hangouts, and Google Docs —in order to accomplish a task. As Dr. Le says, “It’s the world we live in and students need to learn to do things through [off-site] communication because nobody builds things in one place anymore.”

Dr. Le’s students also tackle the pressures of time—a common challenge for teachers and students who engage in project-based learning. Once again, he uses the challenge to simulate the real world of engineers. For each project, Dr. Le helps students identify the issues they need to solve and then requires students to create a work plan. He then gives students specific feedback on how much time they need to allocate for certain segments of the project, such as research. As part of the process, students learn the difference between “soft deadlines” and “hard deadlines.”

According to Dr. Le, “The students are the engineers and I’m the client. Students learn how to negotiate with me—what can they deliver and in what timeframe? They need to figure out what is reasonable and learn to build in time for something unexpected. Students learn to time-manage and, if there are issues, they need to go back and negotiate. There are also hard due dates. For example, for test launching our high altitude rocket at White Sands Missile Range, the due date is the time given to us by the U.S. Army. We can’t move it. If you don’t have your rocket ready by that time, you can’t go and test launch. If you don’t meet hard deadlines, you lose your contract or job; in my class they lose a grade. Students need to allocate time themselves in order to learn a sense of time.”

Dr. Le also organizes the projects so that students not only work in teams, but they also learn to establish and lead the teams themselves. Students select their team members, choose their project manager and, as Dr. Le explains, “live with who they vote for [for project manager]. If it isn’t working out, they learn to do the best they can because in real life that’s what they have to do.” Part of this experience is learning to clarify roles and responsibilities for each team member.

Problem solving. Failing, learning and trying again. Communicating in person and via technology. Time management. Leading and working in teams. Mentoring. Negotiating with clients.

As Dr. Le says, these are skills all students need no matter what career they ultimately choose to pursue. “Students too often want to quit or resist solving problems. I don’t let them,” Dr. Le concludes. “The better way is to find out the reason for the problem and to work on it together to solve it. It’s not just solving a project problem. It could be a human problem, a time problem, all types of problems.  And failure is an option because you can’t succeed every time you do something. I give students a framework for continuous improvement and solving problems.”