California teacher implements a new PM course with support from the PMI Los Angeles Chapter


20 July 2017

Kendra Modzelewski

Written by Kendra Modzelewski

Published inPMI Today

Topics Youth

Group of students viewing chalkboard with a teacher

Teacher Summer O'Brien (left) called in professional project manager Keith Birch as a subject matter expert to support her in delivering a new PM course. "The students were just in awe of [Keith]. They realized [by talking to him] that this career could change their lives."

A veteran teacher of 26 years, Summer O’Brien was asked to tackle a brand-new challenge. School district staff members had contacted Summer and asked her to take the lead on developing a brand new course in project management at Hart High School in Santa Clarita, California, USA. Summer admitted that, while she had always been involved in business projects as an adult, she’d never been formally trained in project management. She agreed to take on the new challenge. 

The result was a course that was offered to both secondary school students and adults across the district as part of a career and technical education (CTE) program. The courses were offered in the afternoon and evening hours, which allowed for a mix of high school student and adult registrants. 

Summer approached the course with an honest, open attitude: “I explained flat out to my class – both the adults and the students – that we were going to learn as we went. The first year was kind of magical because of that.”

Summer recognized the importance of including some subject-matter experts in her course to ensure she was on the right track. “I wanted to give the students quality information. I wanted to prove that I was doing that.” For support, she reached out to the PMI Los Angeles Chapter for some mentorship. 

Through the chapter, Summer found then President-Elect Keith Birch, who admits, “[I] was immediately enthusiastic about this program. I saw this as an opportunity to give back.” Keith began attending some of the sessions and had a strong effect on the students. Summer explained that having a professional project manager like Keith involved help her feel more confident about her program, and also provided great value for the students. “Keith has been just the support and the mentor that I’ve needed,” she said. “The students were just in awe of [Keith]. He would come to the class and deliver lectures. They realized [by talking to him] that this career could change their lives.”

After building up the fundamentals of project management during the course, the students concluded by presenting final projects to their peers, school administrators, and other guests. During their pilot year, three groups shared about a potential real-world project: moving the San Diego Chargers professional football team from San Diego to Los Angeles. Each group had to consider how to rebrand and market the new team. 

The school leaders took notice of the quality of the presentations, as did Keith. “They totally blew me away. I was so excited to hear the students come up with these project plans, present their work breakdown structures, use the right terminology. For me, that was what it was all about. Each team had a different spin on the same project. Some teams were very budget-conscious; some were very scope-conscious.”

Keith has also committed to keeping the chapter involved in the program. After the pilot year, the Los Angeles Chapter invited all of the class participants to a dinner to celebrate their work. They are also considering including a chapter student membership fee into the course so that course participants are integrated into the chapter. Is there value to the chapter?  Keith says “100% of course! This is a profession that’s got a future. The younger generation is really looking at project management seriously. I think … it builds our brand and it builds our identity.” 

Summer has also benefited from her new project management skills. She shared a recent experience where she was asked to develop another new course. “The old me would have panicked. She would have said, this is overwhelming,” Summer said. “The new me, who has all of the skills of a project manager, said ‘You can do this. This is your project. These are the steps that you need to take and you can do this. No stress.”

The Hart High School Program has grown and is also being offered at the area’s Golden Oak Adult School. Next steps for the program include adding a second section of the course this fall. Summer says, “I’ve come a long way since that first year!” 

To bring project management to a local youth or nonprofit organization, please consider using one of PMIEF’s no-cost learning resources, designed to teach project management skills and knowledge to youth and teachers.