Though it's already received high praise, Nikola Tesla STEM High School isn't even old enough to graduate yet.

Image: Amy Vaughn

When people mention “campus” in Redmond, they’re almost never talking about a school. With athletic fields, winding walkways, and scores of buildings, Microsoft’s sprawling Eastside headquarters merits a descriptor once reserved for the scholastic realm. Even the moniker for its row of shops, “the Commons,” sounds like student union-speak.

But loop east around the shores of Lake Sammamish and you’ll find a more modest campus leaving its own outsize footprint on the region’s innovation sector. Tucked between evergreens off Route 202, Nikola Tesla STEM High School ranked as the top public high school in Washington and the 14th best in the country last year, according to U.S. News & World Report. And, unlike the tech colossus nearby, the “Choice” school’s just in its startup stage.

Founded in 2012, Tesla STEM is so new that most of its graduates haven’t yet matriculated from Stanford and Harvard to jobs at places like Microsoft. At least not full-time. The school sponsors junior-year internships at companies in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, part of its focus on real-world application. “Our data point is: Are we walking our talk with STEM literacy and having our students helping build the STEM workforce pipeline,” says principal Cindy Duenas.

Tesla STEM’s approach to learning doesn’t merely hew to Common Core. The National Academy of Engineering’s “Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century”—calls to solve real-world problems like clean water access and the modernization of urban infrastructure—guide upperclassmen’s lab work. In 2017, for instance, student Apoorv Khandelwal built a contraption that eliminated salt from seawater, earning a trip to DC as Washington’s only representative at the national Regeneron Science Talent Search. Others have placed highly at science fairs and contests across the country. “It’s very important that they see themselves not just as a Tesla STEM high school student or a district student or a Washington state student. They need to see how they stack up against like-minded peers across the state, the nation, and globally,” says Duenas.

And that’s not just a mandate for juniors and seniors. Students at every grade level can follow paths that allow them to test their skills and publish research from “week one,” Duenas notes. They learn from engineering teachers trained at the University of Texas’s Cockrell School of Engineering (which offers dual credit) and from computer science instructors who’ve received a boost from Microsoft workers. For years volunteers from the company dropped in before their workdays as part of Technology Education and Literacy in Schools. Known as TEALS, the program helps fill a gap in computer science education born from big bonuses in the private sector luring would-be teachers away.

TEALS wasn’t limited to Tesla STEM when the school “graduated” from it last year; the program has spread from the Puget Sound region to high schools across North America since its 2009 inception, including more than 450 currently. The school has never been exclusive, either. It adheres to the same lottery system as every other “Choice” school in the Lake Washington School District.

But the school’s vocational bent has yielded results relevant to HR managers looking for problem-solvers. Case in point: As the coronavirus pandemic spread this spring, students 3D-printed thousands of masks for local hospitals. Doesn’t get any more real-world than that.

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