At its first-ever Education Summit on May 8, Superintendent Parvin Ahmadi spoke before about 100 business and community leaders, presenting the new approach. Ahmadi said it's no longer enough to teach literacy and math. Students will need new skills, including critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communications to compete in the 21st century, she said.
"We want our students to be engaged thinkers," Ahmadi told the group. She also said students should also have a strong sense of social responsibility.
The district is at the start of bringing in new engineering and biology programs. Tony Dennis, a math teacher at Amador Valley High, said the school is in the first year of what will be a four-year engineering program, with 139 students.
"More than half of them are seniors, they're going off to a two-year or a four-year college," Dennis said. Many students are embracing the program, and for those who decide engineering isn't for them, he told the crowd "I'd rather they discover it now, than when they're sophomores in college and they've spent all your money."
Two students in the engineering program, Courtney Cavenaugh and Cristian Castro spoke at the event, and said they like what they've learned so far.
"I've always liked math and science," Cavanugh said, explaining that she used to think engineers just made engines. "I still haven't figured out what I want to do, but it's helped to narrow it down."
The classes have a hands-on approach, allowing students to built things -- and take them apart.
"It does show there's a fun side to math," Castro said.
The first class, Introduction to Engineering Design, was offered this year at Amador, with two more classes to be added and other courses available through other local high schools, such as Dublin, which is also involved.
Two middle schools, Pleasanton and Harvest Park, are also collaborating, with programs starting there this year. Ultimately, Dennis said, students as young as sixth grade may be involved.
Meanwhile, Foothill is set to begin a 4-year biotechnology program this fall. Anatomy and Physiology teacher Ken Cuozzo said 154 students have already signed up for the first class, "Principles of Biomedical Science."
Many of those students are already planning to go into the field in everything from nurses to surgeons to veterinarians.
The group also got a look into the flipped classroom concept being spearheaded locally by Lisa Highfill, a fifth-grade teacher at Fairlands Elementary.
Highfill gave an example of engaging a class by having them learn decimals by counting real money. Students then went home with homework that incorporated what they'd learned, and the next day, they were given restaurant menus to use as if they were going to place an order, again using the decimals they'd learned the day before.
While Highfill said she knows it's important for kids to be able to understand and remember concepts, her goal is to have them do higher levels of learning, including abstract thinking and analysis.
By way of example, she said, some of the students using menus went online to find out the tax rate in Alameda County, and incorporated that and a tip into their restaurant order.
In closing the event, Ahmadi asked the attendees to become involved, suggesting they could provide anything from field trips to mentorships to funding.