June 8, 2022 8:00 AM EDT

Rachna Nath often felt like the “weird child” at school growing up in India, asking lots of questions and looking for unusual ways of doing things. Now that she’s a teacher herself, she wants to cater to that kind of student.

“I came here and I saw the way I can contribute,” says Nath, a science teacher at Arizona College Prep High School in Chandler, Ariz. “I literally became the person I was looking for when I was in my high school.”

In 2018, Nath started working with students after school to invent solutions to real-world problems. Students learned to brainstorm solutions, research existing patents and apply for grants to build prototypes of their new products.

Rachna Nath helps students pitch and prototype products. (Courtesy Photo)
Rachna Nath helps students pitch and prototype products.
Courtesy Photo

What started as an after-school program for three students will become a year-long class this fall for about 30 students. “They can feel free to fail and make mistakes,” says Nath, 45. “By the end of the year, they will be presenting to stakeholders and doing pitch competitions.” It’s this real-world experience of pitching and prototyping products that sets Nath’s program apart.

So far, her students have worked on a device to amplify Wi-Fi signals in dead zones, invented a hat that helps detect heat stress, and explored how mealworms can digest styrofoam to cut down on pollution.

Omina Nematova, who was in Nath’s freshman biology class, says she learned pretty quickly that if she had a creative idea, Nath was the teacher she should talk to. Nematova, now an 18-year-old graduating senior, was one of several students who worked together to create a hydrothermal hat that can help prevent heat stroke. Sensors on the hat measure a person’s temperature and pulse and can detect if they faint. The hat sends alerts to an app, which notifies the person to “go inside and drink water” or dials an emergency contact when necessary.

“We realized that this was a problem that we should solve,” says Sohani Sandhu, 18, another student who worked on the hat. “And it was something that a lot of people hadn’t really worked on solving either.”

The students applied to patent the device, and they won a $50,000 grant from Arizona State University’s Healthy Urban Environments Initiative in 2020 to build a prototype and test it on student athletes.

Nath hopes her research class can help strengthen students’ creativity and problem-solving skills before they enter college, citing a 2015 survey showing that most college instructors think high school graduates weren’t adequately prepared for critical thinking, problem-solving and research.

Nath says that’s a sign something needs to change. “I think it’s our social responsibility … to motivate these students to do more, and bridge that gap,” she says. “Are we ensuring true lifelong learning? I don’t think so.”

Sandhu, who plans to study biology or biomedical engineering when she begins college in the fall, says her high school experience broadened her understanding of research and made her aware of more career possibilities.

“When I was a freshman, I didn’t really think I’d be the type of person to do an engineering project, create a new innovation that could help hundreds of people,” she says. “Back then, I thought the extent of research was just a science fair, or working at a university lab for a couple years and publishing a paper.”

But now she wants to pursue engineering in the future, and she credits Nath for that change.

“With all the things that she’s taught me related to research over the past four years,” Sandhu says, “my life definitely would not be the same without her.”

More Must-Read Stories From TIME

Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com.

Ralph Saint-Louis: Equity in Schools
Neelam Patil: Climate Educator
Felisa Ford: A Virtual History Lesson
Kevin Bross: A Medical Model of Teaching
Joann Blumenfeld: Finding Strengths in STEM
EDIT POST