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A STEM school sets up students for success

I visited Wake NCSU STEM Early College High School (STEM ECHS) on a bright, sunny Wednesday. As I parked out front, students were spread out across the lawn in front of the school taking pictures of QR codes for an activity in their English class.

View of Raleigh from the historic Dorothea Dix Hospital campus (Credit: Alisa Herr / EdNC)
View of Raleigh from the historic Dorothea Dix Hospital campus (Credit: Alisa Herr / EdNC)

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The Cherry Building houses the entire school on the first floor. In the 2014-15 school year, there were 208 students. This school year, 239 students are expected to attend.

The class size is capped at 55 students. They accept about 12 percent of students who apply. Fifty percent of their students will be the first generation in their families to attend college. Thirty percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch.

The structure of this school is incredibly unique. It is a joint project between Wake County Public School System (WCPSS), NC State University (NCSU), and NC New Schools.

Most students attend the school for its full five-year program — they serve students in grades 9 through 13 — although students have the option of graduating with their high school diploma after 12th grade.

For the first two years, the majority of the classes that students take fulfill requirements for their high school diplomas. In the third year of the program, students begin to take college courses. Throughout the program, they continue to take at least one high school course every year. By the fourth and fifth years, students primarily take college level courses 1. When graduating from STEM ECHS, students earn their high school diploma along with up to 2 years of college credits.

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This big yellow school bus takes students from the STEM ECHS building on the historic Dorthea Dix campus to the Witherspoon Student Center at NCSU, from which they disperse to their college classes. The bus takes a group of students in the morning, returns to STEM ECHS at lunch time, departs for NCSU after lunch, then returns at the end of the school day — this allows flexibility for the students’ packed class schedules.

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STEM ECHS opened its doors in 2011 and 2015 was the first year they had a graduating class. The 14 students who graduated in 2015 earned their high school diplomas and several college credits. The rest of the inaugural class will graduate next spring.

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Four students served as the ambassadors to my visit — Antonia Izuogu (10th grade), Mackenzie Lamb (10th grade), Calef Taylor (11th grade), and Felix Vivongsy (11th grade).

They told me that the interdisciplinary focus on STEM along with the small class sizes makes all classes more interesting and engaging.

“The principal and staff help each student get involved and gain experience in what they want to do,” said Mackenzie. She wants to major in communications in college. The career development counselor and liaison to NCSU have both helped her determine what school activities and which college courses can help her reach her goal. “My background in STEM is going to give me a leg up in my future career.”

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In 9th grade, students take Earth Science combined with Engineering Design on an A/B block schedule. In this class, a theme is set for their entire high school career — determining unique solutions for the 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering from the National Academy of Engineering. These challenges reappear in classes throughout the students’ five years.

14 Grand Challenges for Engineering

  • Make solar energy economical
  • Provide energy from fusion
  • Develop carbon sequestration methods (clean air)
  • Manage the nitrogen cycle
  • Provide access to clean water
  • Restore and improve urban infrastructure
  • Advance health informatics
  • Engineer better medications
  • Reverse-engineer the brain (figure out how the brain works)
  • Prevent nuclear terror
  • Secure cyberspace
  • Enhance virtual reality
  • Advance personal learning
  • Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

Most of the projects at the school are interdisciplinary, so STEM is integrated into the curriculums across all subjects — science, math, computer programming, history, and English.

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Displayed on the walls outside the English classroom, these posters were a project students completed after reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba. They learned about electricity, wind power, windmill design, along with critical thinking and reading comprehension. Many of the students were able to flex their artistic skills while creating the posters.

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This poster showing the Engineering Design Process is hanging up in the English classroom.

The Engineering Design Process creates a structure for how classes progress through units and projects. As a school that uses project-based learning, this process is used in every class.

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Excited to show off projects completed by both students and teachers, Calef showed me around the school.

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Mr. Burgess, the Earth Science and Engineering Design I teacher, built this solar cell phone charger using solar panels from Halloween landscaping lights. 

Students in Mr. Henderson’s Biology and Engineering Design III class designed and modeled cities of the future.

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Students in Ms. Baldwin’s 10th grade Chemistry class were doing titration experiments of a weak base and a strong acid to determine the molarity (concentration) of the weak base. Teacher Evelyn Baldwin is a 2015-16 Kenan Fellow.

The collaborative workstation style desks seen in the above photo are used in many classrooms, making group work easier. Any student may connect their laptop to the large display, or a teacher may project their own screen to each of the displays in the classroom. 

This 9th grade Computer Programming class taught by Mr. Lockamy was converting decimal numbers to hexidecimal numbers. The students were all engaged and competitive when it came to answering quickly.

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Ms. Yerkie’s math classroom is a paperless classroom. Along with teaching full-time, she is working on getting her master’s degree in technology education. For the spring 2015 semester, she decided to convert her classroom into a fully digital classroom.

Students submit their homework electronically and use whiteboards and the classroom iPads to solve problems in class. The day I visited, the 10th graders taking Topics in Calculus were working in teams to solve various problems with matrices.

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STEM ECHS doesn’t have electives or sports teams. But they do have several student-founded clubs.

Felix was a cofounder of the school’s FIRST Robotics team, the Techo Wolves. Originally, students at STEM ECHS partnered with Southeast Raleigh High School on their robotics team, the Robodogs. In 2014, four students at STEM ECHS decided to create their own team, which has grown to about 25 student members and 10 adult supporters. 

The Techno Wolves competed in their first FIRST Robotics Competition this past March in Raleigh at the N.C. State Fairgrounds, in which they placed 11th out of 55.

The school sets up these high-achieving students to succeed.

They have a program called SMART Lunch that provides study time or extra tutoring during their 45 minute lunch period. It is mandatory to attend SMART Lunch if a student’s grade for a particular class is below an 80.

The principal, David Schwenker, says that one of his favorite parts of being the principal of STEM ECHS is the small community atmosphere. It allows him to know all of the students personally. The rapport between him and the students is strong and he clearly contributes to the success of the students and the school.

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The self-accountability and level of commitment to learning that I encountered in the students at STEM ECHS was impressive.

Antonia Izuogu said that with the focus on high GPAs and getting into a good college — one that is also a good fit for the student — there isn’t time for students not to work hard. It sounds to me like the students here are up to the challenge.

Alisa Herr

Alisa Herr is the former chief technical officer of EducationNC.