How a university’s high school aims for upward STEM mobility

Program's goal is to engage students who could see no meaning with their high school experience
By: | March 17, 2021
Students at Purdue Polytechnic High School Schweitzer Center work on graphic and visual art projects. (Purdue University/Charles Jischke)Students at Purdue Polytechnic High School Schweitzer Center work on graphic and visual art projects. (Purdue University/Charles Jischke)

Students from underserved communities who aspire to advanced manufacturing and technology jobs will get a boost by building skills in high school.

That’s the guiding philosophy behind Purdue Polytechnic High Schools’ three campuses, which is generating a pipeline of low-income and minority students who will pursue STEM fields in college and beyond.

The program’s goal is to engage students who could see no meaning with their high school experience and who doubted their ability to learn, says its creator, Gary Bertoline, dean of Purdue Polytechnic Institute (formerly known as the College of Technology).

“These are students who are just going through the motions. They are doing whatever they can do to get their diploma and then get a job,” Bertoline said. “Students actually see how math is used and applied and has relevance instead of doing some numbers out of a book.”

Two of the high school’s campuses are located in Indianapolis’ and one serves South Bend. One is operated in partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools and the other two are public charters.

The curriculum focuses on collaborative, open-ended problem-solving around real-world issues. During the school year, students work on eight to 10 passion projects, examples of which include designing business plans for hydroponics and addressing climate change and food deserts in Indianapolis.

Students also participate in internships, industry projects and dual-credit courses, and can earn technical certifications.


Graduates of the program who meet Purdue’s admission requirements can gain admission to one of the university’s 200-plus majors. The high school’s east side Indianapolis campus will graduate its first class this spring, and may send nearly 50 students—half of them students of color—to Purdue.

“Employers are looking to increase diversity,” said Scott Bess, head of Purdue Polytechnic High Schools. “Diversity leads to better outcomes, better products and better solutions. You can’t have diversity if you don’t have a pipeline.”

Bertoline and Bess are now working to get at least 100 Indiana high schools to adopt all or some of Purdue Polytechnic High Schools’ curriculum. They also plan to open several more schools in the state.

“We are collaborating with traditional school districts where they could do something,” Bess says. “With the technology we are using during the pandemic, there is no reason a student in a rural Indiana school can’t partner with a PPHS student in downtown Indianapolis.”