Odyssey STEM: First to Combine Big Picture and Altitude Learning

“Strong heart, strong mind, strong will … ODYSSEY!” scholars sang in unison. These are scholars who have been attending the new high school in Paramount USD for just a short 8 weeks. Patricia, one of the scholars who we had the pleasure of chatting with, relayed that Odyssey STEM Academy and the driving purpose has been a refreshing change for her and that she has never enjoyed and felt belonging to a school this much. Aspiring creative writer, she knows Odyssey is giving her individual attention and support that she wouldn’t have received otherwise.

What’s unique about the Odyssey model? Keith Nuthall and Becky Perez (PUSD graduate) decided that the new high school needed to speak to the community and reflect the needs and desires of those within the four walls as well as the four square miles beyond its walls. Therefore, they worked diligently over the course of a year to design principles that would fuel the teaching and learning at the school. They also derived a driving mission and vision that they adhere to and reflect on daily.

Why We Exist: To empower learners by awakening their curiosity and passion to transform themselves and the world.

Odyssey also will be the first Big Picture Learning and Altitude Learning inspired high school to date. Students engage in internships in their own community by following the Big Picture model and use the Altitude platform to drive their learning of core content and subjects. Students engage in projects and use their surroundings, technology and each other to create. They work towards mastering competencies that are expected of each and every graduate (see graduate profile below). When we stopped in, students in an engineering class were getting immediate feedback on their work and designs.

Click here for their full mission and vision

Odyssey Learning Model

What better than to hear directly from the founders how this model works. Keith and Becky shared more about the underpinnings of the design:

Paramount Unified’s newest high school, Odyssey STEM Academy, opened in August 2018 with scholars immersed in an Idea Lab designed to awaken their curiosity and passion for transforming themselves and the world. Acting as bio-inspired engineers, scientists and designers, scholars take cues from nature as a way of enhancing existing technologies and inventing new ones.

Learning at Odyssey is hands-on and the concept of bio-inspiration anchors the curriculum across disciplines during the first trimester. The challenge? Design a robot that emulates a movement in nature to traverse a difficult terrain.

Working in teams of two, scholars take a deep dive into the inner biological workings of unusual creatures, plants, and processes that inspire the development of their robots. There are no kits nor predesigned parts at Odyssey. Scholars brainstorm, research, design, and prototype their ideas quickly with hand sketches, cardboard, scissors, and glue to test their ideas and then progress to precise 3D planning using Rhino and Illustrator. Robot parts are created on 3D printers, laser cutters and CNC mills and electronics are programmed using Arduino. During this process, scholars connect their learning across the disciplines to deepen their understanding and apply big ideas like empirical reasoning to their designs.

Scholars rotate through the Idea Lab twice a week in three-hour increments, immersing themselves in the studio learning model, borrowed from the architectural world. This intensive approach to project work allows for deep, uninterrupted periods of work and is more conducive to the evolution of a learner’s creativity.

“The scholars at Odyssey are working with the very best tools and techniques which are taken straight from industry leading practices and top universities. We have an amazing and diverse group of engineers and designers to support students as they explore the open-ended design challenge through making. I couldn’t be more excited to see what the students achieve this first trimester,” reflects Aaron Laniosz, the Idea Lab leader and talented architectural designer and NuVuX team member. Odyssey partnered with NuVu, an innovation school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to support the development of the projects throughout the year.

Reflecting, archiving, and curating learning is central to the work. Scholars document the development of their designs through up-close photographs, video, diagrams, technical descriptions, and reflections. Emphasis is intentionally placed on capturing the evolution of creativity and learning rather than on the product because sometimes designs that “fail” provide deeper learning opportunities than ones that “work.” The tinkering, trouble-shooting, and reflecting space in between iterations are the breeding ground for creative thought and the leap from one idea to the next and explicit explanation of those choices is exactly what learners articulate in their documentation of their learning. At the end of the trimester, scholars will defend their learning across all disciplines and present their designs, reflecting on their growth through a visual and oral portfolio presentation.

Learning at Odyssey is demanding, requiring all scholars to be at their best every day, but they are not alone. Odyssey’s unique time and space structures, interest-based learning approach, and inclusive culture ensure equitable access to high expectations for all. Empowering scholars means making them full partners in their journey with an advisor.

Together, they build a unique learning pathway that empowers each learner to develop a strong mind, heart, and will to succeed.

For more, see:

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Emily Liebtag

Emily Liebtag, Ed.D., is Education Reimagined's Senior Partner for Systems Transformation. Formerly, Emily served as the Vice President of Advocacy at Getting Smart.

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