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NC School of Science and Mathematics breaks ground on new campus in Morganton

Last Friday, 600 people representing local and state government, business, and education gathered for the groundbreaking of the new campus of the North Carolina School for Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) in Morganton. The school is scheduled to open in August 2021 and bring 300 students from across the state to its residential campus. The groundbreaking comes as NCSSM is approaching its 40th anniversary, with its first campus opening in Durham in 1980 under the vision of former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt.

“It took vision in the late ‘70s to imagine that an abandoned hospital in Durham would grow into a home for a new and cutting edge model of STEM education,” said NCSSM Chancellor Todd Roberts. “Few could’ve imagined that just a few decades later, NCSSM would be the model institution for designing and delivering innovative courses, academic enrichment experiences, and professional development for educators across our state and our globe.”

With its upcoming opening in Morganton, Roberts said NCSSM will be the first program of its kind anywhere in the world with two physical locations: one urban and one rural. Though one of a kind, the school comes to western North Carolina with several local and regional partners, including the adjacent NC School for the Deaf and Western Piedmont Community College (WPCC) just down the road.

“They were true partners,” said Tom Looney, chair of the NCSSM Board of Trustees, of WPCC. “They were the first door that was open when we came to this campus to support us, and I’m a big believer in the community college system. This land is going to be fertile ground to really change people’s lives between your community college system here in Morganton as well as the School of Math and Science.”

The NC School for the Deaf, seen from the campus of Western Piedmont Community College. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Looney’s mention of the new NCSSM campus changing people’s lives was a common thread among speakers at the groundbreaking, from school leaders to members of state government.

“This is a game changer for this community,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. “It’s a game changer for this part of the state, and it’s a game changer for our students as well.”

Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke said he’s confident the state’s investment in the new campus is going to pay off in a big way.

“It’s going to say to people from well outside North Carolina that this is a place to come for innovation, for invention, to invest, to find employees, and we’re going to train students for this area that will have the skills that are needed for those high-tech jobs,” Blackwell said.

It is this training grounded in STEM education, speakers said, that will make the new campus in Morganton impactful.

Intellectual property, new ideas, innovations, even artificial intelligence will transform lives here and will make an impact far beyond the classrooms that these students sit in and work in,” said Nancy Cable, chancellor of UNC-Asheville.

This vision for the future is one that prompted Carolinas HealthCare System Blue Ridge to make a special announcement of a $5 million donation to NCSSM-Morganton at the groundbreaking ceremony.

“Health care is changing. How services are provided and where they are provided are rapidly evolving,” said Mike Bridges, chairman of the CHS Blue Ridge Board of Directors. “Carolina’s HealthCare System Blue Ridge is committed to improving the health outside of the traditional hospital walls and see this donation as support to the future prosperity and success of the region.”

NCSSM shared in a press release that the gift “conveys naming rights for a state-of-the-art comprehensive student wellness and activities center at NCSSMMorganton” and “represents a significant step toward the $10 million goal to support construction of the new Morganton campus. The gift also puts the total raised for the new campus at more than $7 million since 2018.”

The surprise announcement was followed by a standing ovation.

“The donation of $5 million was a huge announcement and really a great partnership of the health care community and the local business community to support STEM education,” said attendee Carol Steen, vice president of talent at Biltmore Farms and board member for the Asheville Museum of Science.

Earlier this month, the school also announced a $465,000 grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation that will provide broadband infrastructure to the new campus. The Burroughs Wellcome Fund is another contributor to the school’s new campus, providing a $250,000 grant focused on fostering a cutting edge learning experience for students.

Attendees walk toward the NCSSM-Morganton groundbreaking site. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

After closing remarks, attendees walked toward the site’s lawn to take photographs, shovels in hand, to recognize the upcoming build. Several of the supporters present included NCSSM alumni, like Carl Ryden of the class of 1989, who also served as chair of the NCSSM Foundation for the past three years. His dedication was palpable, but he said it was because of the opportunity NCSSM provided someone like him.

“I grew up in rural eastern North Carolina,” Ryden said. “When I interviewed with the school prior to getting accepted — I went there ‘87 through ‘89 — I told them that ‘you built the school for kids like me.'”

Ryden would go on to N.C. State University to study electrical engineering and then MIT for a joint MBA/MS degree in engineering. To have witnessed the groundbreaking, he said, meant more talented students in North Carolina wouldn’t be turned away.

“Ultimately, we’re going to provide an opportunity for 300 kids that don’t have it today,” he said.

Editor’s note: Burroughs Wellcome Fund supports the work of EducationNC.

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.