Energy + sustainability = a bright future for rural students
The STEM program of NC New Schools makes college-level learning more accessible for high school studentsBy Margaret Buranen
In school this past year 15-year-old Maddy Leaman had fun "learning how to make paper out of recycled materials, but my favorite class would have to be the Engineering Design class." Maddy hopes to go into some field of engineering after she graduates in 2015. She has enjoyed learning about and studying "the processes that go into making things like wind turbines and solar panels."
Maddy's classmate, 16-year-old John Clark, has learned about energy "working with the agricultural teachers to make our greenhouse more sustainable." He wants to earn a degree in veterinary medicine from North Carolina State University.
Students like Maddy and John in small rural North Carolina high schools might seem to be at a disadvantage. Opportunities to receive the kind of education that will lead to a high-paying technological or scientific professional career probably aren't numerous. But Maddy and John have a big advantage over other high school students, even those in the state's largest cities. They are enrolled in the STEM Academy at Avery County High School.
STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — is a growing trend in high school education nationwide. Programs vary, but they emphasize STEM subjects and collaborative learning.
In STEM schools with an Early College structure, students earn college credits for free while still in high school. They usually can enter these schools as ninth graders. They take one college class their first year. Each year they take more college classes and fewer high school classes.
"The majority of our students stay for five years, graduate from high school, and earn an associate's [two-year college] degree," said Katrenna Rich, principal of Edgecombe Early College STEM High School in Tarboro. She added that some students take extra college courses so that they earn both A.A. and A.S. degrees. Others earn trade certifications, too.
This Early College format was designed to serve students who are less likely to attend college. Their parents didn't attend college, they are underrepresented in the college population (by geography, ethnic background, socio-economic status), or they are at risk for dropping out.
Kim Davis serves as principal of the STEM Academy within Avery County High School in Newland. Student enrollment is about 110. Davis enjoys "watching how engaged the students are. When they are in the classroom they're not just sitting there listening to a teacher. They get to pick their own topic, they get to try things, they get to work together."
The students soon realize that figuring out problems and completing projects — student-centered learning — is more difficult than just memorizing material. Each student is held accountable for group work. Writing, to develop critical and creative thinking, is part of each class.
"Our philosophy is that every student should be reading, writing, talking and thinking in every class every day," said Nicole Murray, principal at Duplin Early College High School in Kenansville. Murray is pleased that the Duplin County School System is planning to implement Early College strategies system-wide. "We know these strategies have been vetted and are good for the students. Now every child will get these opportunities," she said.
Prospective students for Early College STEM schools apply as eighth graders. Their selection depends on interviews and recommendations from their teachers.
"We've had a hard time recruiting boys because Edgecombe Early College doesn't have an athletic program. We get out later than high schools do so they would have to miss class to make team practice. They can't miss class," principal Katrenna Rich said.
This is not easy, but students stick to it
Students attracted to such a rigorous program with a longer school day tend to be the ones who are motivated to do the extra work. They're eager to learn and willing to challenge themselves. Still, doing high school and college at the same time with a new learning style isn't easy.
"The biggest challenge for students is to grow up faster in every aspect — cognitive, social, emotional," explained Rich.
That's particularly so for ninth graders. The previous year, they were in team teaching classes. Now, Rich said, "they have individual teachers they're accountable to. They won't be in high school with their friends and they're in a college class with grown people."
Students' grades often drop during the first semester of STEM. As they adjust to higher expectations and collaborative learning their grades rise. Still, Davis said that some parents are more concerned about the lack of A's than they are about content and long-term benefits. What helps the STEM students survive, and ultimately thrive ("We lose very few students," Rich said) is an incredible amount of support from their teachers.
"Every adult in the building knows every child, and not just their names," Duplin's Nicole Murray said.
Murray and Rich concurred with Avery County's Kim Davis when she said that another benefit of STEM education is that "we have many fewer discipline issues than before."
This type of learning means extra work for the teachers, too. "North Carolina New Schools requires extensive professional development," Rich said. "Our teachers definitely have to have a buy in to lifelong learning."
Teachers in different classes often integrate their subjects. For example, John Clark's favorite project has been "working with worms [vermiculture-worm composting] in my English class and Horticulture class."
Edgecombe students read the novel "The Kite Runner" in English class. In math class they learned math and geometry concepts by constructing kite models. In science they studied aerodynamics through kite flying. A battle of kites taught them some history.
Davis has been surprised by "how much kids do step up to what's expected of them." Another surprise is "how many community members want to support us. For example, Mountain Electric (a Tennessee-based electric cooperative) sent people to teach the kids how to do an energy audit."
Murray recalled what happened when a Duplin earth science teacher asked a pizza shop owner for some cardboard boxes for the students' solar experiments. Instead of giving her those boxes, the business owner made some wooden boxes so they could be reused by future classes.
Duplin students have studied how to save energy and reduce their carbon footprint. Next year they'll focus on gathering and interpreting data. An engineer from a firm in Raleigh will help them do energy audits and learn how data influences scientific research and solutions to problems.
Murray said that for students a STEM Early College high school "is really making them future-ready. These kids see that a college education is reachable."