Baltimore high school students devise health care solutions for superheroes

Participants in Dunbar's P-TECH program take part in 'Wakanda Design Challenge' at Congressional Black Caucus Foundation conference

A group of students works on a prototype

Image credit: Kaveh Sardari

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If a Marvel superhero suffered a debilitating injury during the Infinity War and suddenly couldn't walk, what device would you design to help him or her get back into the fray?

Fifty P-TECH Healthcare students accepted this "Wakanda Design Challenge" as part of a creative problem solving workshop based in the world of the blockbuster movies Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther. The event on Sept. 13 was part of the annual conference hosted by Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Washington, D.C.

The students participating were well prepared: As students in the Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, housed at Baltimore's Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, they are already immersed in a variety of health care fields, including information technology, nursing, physical therapy, and respiratory services. Now in its third year, the program at Dunbar has recently rebranded itself as P-TECH Healthcare to reflect its specific focus area.

Sponsored by General Motors and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the STEAM Revolt Youth Workshop emphasized collaboration, hands-on learning, and African art and culture by asking teams of P-TECH students not only to create their own superhero—complete with origin story and distinctive superpowers—but also to design a device that would help the hero regain mobility if he or she lost the ability to walk. The solution had to be functional, on-budget, and reflect African culture and art in its design.

The panel of judges provided some major inspiration, including Jesse Holland, the author of Who Is the Black Panther?, Marvel's official companion novel for the movie Black Panther, and Dean Kamen, founder of DEKA Research and Development Corp., which created the iBot-powered wheelchair that served as a jumping-off point for the students' designs.

In addition to the workshop activities, students listened to presentations by speakers such as Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor in Georgia and is the first black female major-party gubernatorial nominee in the United States, and Sybrina Fulton, who established the Trayvon Martin Foundation in 2012 after losing her son to violence. 

Video credit: Johns Hopkins Medicine

"Our students got to be in a space where they could be inspired by professionals and also see people of color in leadership and decision-making positions," says Alexia Smith, Johns Hopkins' P-TECH corporate liaison. "The STEAM activity allowed them to use their creativity as well as learn important skills related to engineering, math, and science. Overall, it reinforced what we want for all of our P-TECH students, and that's ultimately to be the professionals of the future and the Hopkins employees of the future."

P-TECH Healthcare has nearly 150 students enrolled. Johns Hopkins is among the program sponsors at Dunbar, along with Baltimore City Community College; Baltimore City Public Schools; Kaiser Permanente; and the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Piloted in a New York City school in 2011, P-TECH schools are designed to create clear pathways to both higher education and employment. Students in the program graduate from high school with a no-cost associate's degree by augmenting their regular high school courses with community college classes. P-TECH schools and community colleges also work with corporate partners to craft a curriculum aimed at a specific set of job skills.

"PTECH Healthcare integrates classroom instruction with hands-on experiences to provide students a unique learning environment," says Michael Preston, director of community affairs for Johns Hopkins Medicine. "This is the second year of a partnership between Johns Hopkins and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to provide a STEAM workshop during the CBCF's Annual Legislative Conference."