Overland Park & Leawood

Blue Valley CAPS program jump-starts students’ future

The veterinary medicine class, which includes Cameron Tomka (left) and Paige Cote, has worked closely this semester with Bayer Animal Health.
The veterinary medicine class, which includes Cameron Tomka (left) and Paige Cote, has worked closely this semester with Bayer Animal Health. The Kansas City Star

On a cold morning in April, Blue Valley High School senior Tori Wiegers spent the first part of her school day covered in horse hair.

Long, thick wisps of hair that filled the air like snow, falling onto her jacket, jeans and shoes.

But Wiegers didn’t mind — it was all part of the learning process.

Wiegers, along with eight classmates, is a student of the district’s veterinary medicine class, a new course offered through Blue Valley’s renowned Center for Advanced Professional Studies, or CAPS.

On this particular morning, the vet med students were visiting HorseSave Sanctuary, a Grandview stable that rescues and rehabilitates horses and other animals.

Upon arrival, the students and class instructor Kelley Tuel were introduced to a number of horses so they could learn basic grooming techniques, like brushing the hair and cleaning out the hooves.

Carol Richardson, the founder of HorseSave, guided the students as they became acquainted with horses, mini horses and donkeys.

“Usually you brush the way the hair grows,” Richardson said as the students practiced grooming the animals.

A blue bucket of grooming tools was placed by the fence as the students alternated between brushing hair and cleaning hooves. At the far end of the fenced-in area stood Eeyore, a mini donkey who suffers from a bad hip.

“Who wants to tackle the feet on Eeyore?” Richardson asked.

One student volunteered and gently lifted the mini donkey’s foot to remove the dirt and grime. Eeyore pinned his ears to the side in distaste as the student chipped away.

“You wouldn’t get this kind of experience with other classes,” Wiegers said. “I didn’t even know this place existed until today.”

That’s the goal of any course in Blue Valley CAPS — to give students hands-on experiences in industries with a growing demand for new talent and allow them to test career paths before post-secondary education.

“Every day is so different,” Tuel said. “There’s more to it than what people think, and that’s what I’m trying to open the students’ eyes to.”

Blue Valley schools Superintendent Tom Trigg developed the idea for CAPS, which first began in 2008 as a satellite program for about 150 students in the district. The kids were sent to businesses around the area to learn about the workforce. Today, CAPS is housed in a sprawling building in Overland Park, with more than 800 students and classes that continue to evolve.

By partnering with local businesses and mentors, CAPS is able to identify demand in industries and adapt its course offerings accordingly.

“We want to look at business and industry and understand what the opportunities are going to be,” Trigg said. “But then we have to mesh that with students’ interests and what kinds of programs will attract the kids.”

The classes offered in CAPS revolve around business, bioscience, engineering and human services. Within those strands, the students are offered a number of courses. In the business sector, students can choose to take filmmaking, iMedia, global business, interactive design or technology solutions. The engineering section houses aerospace engineering, robotics, even digital electronics.

Juniors and seniors in the Blue Valley district can enroll in CAPS classes, which are offered in the morning and afternoon at the CAPS building for two to three hours. The students leave their home high schools to attend their CAPS classes, which require business casual dress.

At the beginning of the 2014 school year, two new classes were added to CAPS: veterinary medicine and global foods.

The decision to bring the classes on board was spearheaded by the CAPS advisory board, made up of local industry experts who also help develop the class curriculum.

“We have hundreds of business partners that work with us,” said Corey Mohn, executive director of CAPS. “As they see opportunities, they oftentimes come to us and we try to figure out the best way to make a good fit of it and bring that opportunity to the students.”

The curriculum for veterinary medicine was developed by two faculty members from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University; a faculty member at Kansas State-Olathe; a rancher from Swickard Family Farms in Stilwell; a former Blue Valley West teacher and rancher; a clinic veterinarian; and a veterinary cardiologist. The wide range of input from experts helped develop the class from a business model perspective instead of the traditional education model.

After the curriculum is developed and the new class is officially being offered, students who are enrolled are able to interact with employees and mentors who work in a related field.

The veterinary medicine class has worked closely this semester with Bayer Animal Health, a research and product-development company located in Shawnee.

“They can read about it in books, but what they can do with real-life experience is totally different,” said Lauren Dorsch, senior communications representative for Bayer.

“Our job as a STEM employer is to recruit employees that fuel our industry,” Dorsch said. “Our intent is definitely that students in this curriculum at CAPS have at least been exposed to veterinary medicine and have a better understanding of what veterinarians do.”

Although global foods is a much broader course than veterinary medicine, it was crucial for the food industry to attempt to fill a large need.

“For a while, they said we’ve got to get in the food space,” global foods instructor Joe Whalen said. “Especially in the areas of food science and food safety. Right now, they don’t have enough people to fill the jobs that are currently there.”

The class, which Whalen describes as two-thirds science and one-third business, has paired with industry experts from Dupont, K-State and the University of Kansas Medical Center to learn about food from a research and a nutritional perspective.

“My goal is to introduce them to the entire industry to pique their interest in something,” Whalen said.

Since its inception, CAPS has expanded through partnerships with other districts, the latest including the Bentonville School District in Bentonville, Ark. A total of 17 school districts have replicated the CAPS model, including six school districts in Kansas City’s Northland and districts in Kansas, Utah, Arizona, Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas and Minnesota.

Through the partnerships, Blue Valley is able to expand the CAPS brand and increase the number of students exposed to the business model of learning. Partnering districts gain access to materials developed by the CAPS model, as well as insight from teachers and industry leaders who work with the education model.

“If we have more and more people that are attempting this model, we can learn from each other,” Mohn said. “At the end of the day, we just want a good experience for our kids.”

A few weeks after their outing at HorseSave, the veterinary medicine class gathered in the classroom to practice CPR techniques and examine stomach samples from a cow.

The students were divided into groups as they took turns going into the hallway with Tuel, who had a stuffed cat and dog with an emergency situation the students need to address.

The first group up examined a brown, fluffy stuffed dog named Rufus.

After eating a chocolate bunny, Rufus was suffering from severe symptoms and needed immediate assistance.

“We don’t have a heart rate,” Tuel told the students. “The dog will die if you don’t do something.”

The students discussed a number of options: CPR, calling poison control or an emergency veterinary line.

CPR seemed to be the best option, so one by one the students practiced checking Rufus’ vital signs.

“Close his snout and breathe into the nose,” Tuel told them.

After Rufus was properly revived with rescue breaths and chest compressions, the group headed back to the lab and another small group took their place.

In the lab, students peered into a microscope to examine stomach samples from a cow suffering from hypomotility in the gut, which leads to excessive gas accumulation.

The exercise was part of the day’s lesson, “The Case of the Twisted Stomach.”

Fake hearts, bottles of dye and models of a cow’s anatomy decorated the lab stations, where students in lab coats peered out of goggles to look at the bacteria in the stomach samples.

Although the students are only in the classroom a few times a week, the lessons they learn in the lab are practical and help them on site visits.

The students are exposed to a wide range of site visits, from socializing dogs at Wayside Waifs to Swickard Family Farms.

“Mostly we’re out doing things,” Tuel said. “We volunteer at Deanna Rose,” the children’s petting zoo and farmstead in Overland Park, “and we’re mucking stalls, and they’re so happy to be mucking stalls. That’s what I love — their elation, no matter what we’re doing.”

On a chilly Friday morning, the students in the global foods class took a buggy ride through acres and acres of farmland owned by Frank Gieringer of Gieringer’s Orchard in Edgerton.

Gieringer’s Orchard grows a number of fruits, from blueberries to tomatoes and strawberries, but peaches are its bread and butter.

The students stepped out of the buggy, pulled by Gieringer’s Chevy, and onto the soil that produces Gieringer’s peaches.

Gieringer, in his coveralls and hat, showed the students the lay of the land as he explained the labor that goes into producing the fruit trees.

“Every year, we probably cut about one-third to about 50 percent of these trees,” Gieringer said. “By cutting a lot of wood out of this tree, we stimulate new growth.”

Gieringer picked a bud from the peach tree and explained the different aspects of a bud — how he and his team pick buds off certain branches to make sure the peaches have enough room to grow.

“What happens when you have more than three live sprouts?” one student asked.

“If I didn’t do anything with this tree, at picking time in July, almost every one of these branches would break,” Gieringer explained.

It’s an engaging hour between the students and Gieringer, who broke down the farming process in terms that sparked the teens’ interest.

Gieringer hosts plenty of tours of the farm throughout the year, which he sees as a learning opportunity for consumers.

“It keeps people a little more in touch with how their food grows,” Gieringer said.

Part of Whalen’s mission for the students in global foods is to teach them about the science of food from the farm to the fork.

The group’s visit to Gieringer’s Orchard is one of many on-site trips they’ve taken this semester.

A few weeks later, in a test kitchen that smelled like fresh apple pie, the students tested out prototypes for food products they’ll develop and pitch to a group of industry experts.

The apple pie smell was a result of the cinnamon roll pizza one pair of students were fine-tuning.

“At first, we started with packaged cinnamon rolls, but then we made our own,” said Lauren Scott, a senior at Blue Valley Northwest and one of nine students in the global foods course. The pizza has a cinnamon roll crust, apple filling and vanilla icing on top.

In the corner of the kitchen, Peyton Cain, a senior at Blue Valley Southwest, worked with her prototype: a product called Energy Bites. The bite-size health food snacks are made with no added sugar, with each square under 10 calories.

“A lot of the snacks out there have added sugar, and they don’t have enough protein,” Cain said. “We really just wanted to stand out.”

The students studied food trends and industry analysis to figure out what was missing in the market. The exercise is a semesterlong project the group will present to a panel of judges “Shark Tank” style.

Abby Mitchell, a junior at Blue Valley West, enrolled in global foods for a second semester to work on an independent project.

“I joined this class thinking, ‘OK, I’ll try it,’ and then I fell in love with it,” Mitchell said. “I’m already enrolled for a third semester.”