Need for Speed — and PBL

Connecting hands-on learning with 21st century careers

Napa New Tech High alumnus Chris Schmidt is a current student at the NASCAR Technical Institute. His courses are a blend of classroom and interactive learning, taught through a series of projects that are reflective of the real world. Chris was prepared to succeed in this environment because of his project-based learning (PBL) experiences at New Tech. NapaLearns believes PBL is the best preparation for college and today’s careers.


Ever since he was a little boy, Chris Schmidt has loved two things: cars and racing.

“Growing up, racing was always in the house,” he recalled. “Sunday was football and NASCAR — that’s pretty much what Sundays were all about.”

Chris, age 4, heading to the track with his first sprint car.

When Chris was just four years old his father bought him his own sprint car. Racing was very much a family affair — his uncle also raced sprint cars, and his father was part of the pit crew. As a teenager Chris often helped his uncle at the track, scraping mud off cars and learning about how they functioned.

After graduating from New Tech High in 2015, Chris moved across the country to begin his education and training at the NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, North Carolina, also known as Race City, USA.

Chris credits New Tech for helping him find his dream post-secondary experience and for preparing him to succeed there.

“I struggled my freshman year while attending a traditional high school. I barely passed my classes, I couldn’t grasp it.” But after transferring to New Tech his sophomore year, things started to change.

“Scientific Studies was my first class in the morning and that class was hands-on. That was perfect, that’s why I was able to grasp the content.”

At New Tech, all students are immersed in project-based learning in every class. Authentic learning is a core principle and students become very engaged in their studies because of this.

During his senior year, Chris interned at a local auto body shop and that helped him discover the potential for continuing his education at the NASCAR Technical Institute. He applied, was accepted, and is thriving.

So far, Chris has taken most of the core classes required to graduate, from service writing to electrical. He described his classes as a mixture of traditional lectures in a classroom and hands on learning in a lab setting. Since each class is only three weeks long, there’s a lot to learn, and quickly.

“I’m learning so much,” he admitted. “I have to learn about complex problems, how to diagnose them, and also how to go into a lab and fix them. It’s one thing to learn about sensors and it’s another thing to actually work on the scanner and do diagnostics.”

Chris also shared that he struggles with learning due to ADHD, but that the program’s way of teaching is highly conducive to his learning style. “The project-based learning and participatory environment definitely help me out; they help me to mature and focus on my work,” explained Chris.

Chris stands in front of the sign for his school, the NASCAR Technical Institute.

Chris provided an example from one of his current courses in fabrication, which requires students to work on different types of projects. In one project, he had to cut and shape a piece of metal to certain specifics. To complete the projects, he estimates students are in the lab about 60% of the time.

He also acknowledged that his fellow students come from a variety of backgrounds and maturity levels.

“This taught me how to be more professional in the classroom and ask questions that I probably wouldn’t have thought of. At New Tech I was always encouraged to ask questions.”

With only a few more courses to go, graduation is in sight. But Chris isn’t ready to finish just yet. His goal is to become a master technician, with one caveat: he wants to accomplish all this before he turns 21.

“If I add another elective I’ll graduate in June 2016, right before I turn 20. Then after one more year at a dealership and getting those additional certifications, I’ll become a master tech.”

When asked about where he plans to work after graduating, Chris was confident there would be no shortage of opportunities.

“As long as there’s cars on the road, there’s going to be someone who needs to fix them.”


Project-Based Learning

Since 2010 NapaLearns has invested $4.5 million in scaling project-based learning and the New Tech Network model to 13 schools in Napa County. Project-based learning (PBL) helps students of all levels practice their individual creativity, and develop the communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills they will need in a knowledge-based, highly technological society. PBL enables students to learn core content while completing highly engaging projects.