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Perspective | STEM Scholars Program: Narrowing the computer science gap

Roughly 600 of North Carolina’s high schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes, but only 148 of those schools offered an AP computer science course in 2018-19.

In 2019, only 4,525 exams were taken in AP computer science by high school students. There are fewer AP exams taken in computer science than any other STEM subject area.

As the world seeks more and more computer science experts, it’s crucial that North Carolina finds a way to serve its students through a computer science education – especially in high school. This is important because high school students who take an AP computer science course are six times more likely to seek a computer science major than their peers, and women specifically are 10 times more likely.

Although many schools would love to offer advanced computer science courses, or computer science courses in general for that matter, school administrators report that there is a lack of funds for hiring and training teachers. In a Google/Gallup survey, 69% of North Carolina principals surveyed think computer science is just as or more important than the currently required core classes. Many administrators support expanding computer science within their schools, but they cannot due to lack of resources.

Therein lies the problem. How can schools and students gain access to advanced computer science and other STEM courses?

I have a solution to share: The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) STEM Scholars program.

STEM Scholars

The STEM Scholars program is a partnership between NCSSM and interested North Carolina public schools for a two-year, cost-free cohort program that offers computer science and STEM elective courses for students in ninth and 10th grade.

These courses are designed to better prepare students in small rural schools, particularly students who are historically underrepresented in STEM fields, for the opportunities they will have in the future.

Students participating in the STEM Scholars program are selected by their local schools. Each school participating in the program is committed to enrolling at least four students. The courses in the program are offered through Interactive Video Conferencing (IVC). This allows for students to interact with the NCSSM instructor and their classmates in real-time just like a face-to-face classroom.

With the two-way video conferencing, students from schools across the state can collaborate in project teams and whole-class discussion while developing the skills for the real-world. NCSSM instructors monitor the class in real time, assessing student learning and ensuring that students engage with the course materials and with each other.

Two-way video conferencing, STEM Scholars program. Courtesy of NCSSM

The program begins in the spring semester of the student’s freshman year where they enroll in honors computer science and computational thinking. In 10th grade, students select at least one of the following courses: honors intro to artificial intelligence, honors global public health & infectious disease, honors connected computing, and honors creative design for the web.

After completing the 10th grade course, students are considered graduates of the STEM Scholars program and receive a certificate, a featured picture on the NCSSM website, and are eligible for a voucher to attend a NCSSM Summer Accelerator course free of cost.

Summer Accelerator is a summer program offering courses that each last three weeks. The first two weeks are a self-paced online experience, and during the third week, students get to interact with their instructor.

As students complete their sophomore year of high school, they can apply to participate in the residential or online programs at NCSSM. However, they can also continue their STEM studies at NCSSM by participating in additional distance education courses.

STEM Scholars is an amazing way for high school students from historically underrepresented populations to dive into the world of STEM and start their journey in computer science. To learn more about the program, click here.

I encourage you to share this opportunity with people you know. By doing this, you are helping narrow the gap in STEM Education in North Carolina.

If you have other questions or are a public NC high school interested in beginning a partnership, contact Ms. Camilla Brothers, Outreach and Partnership Manager, by email at or by phone at 919-416-2658.

Ana Ratanaphruks

Ana Ratanaphruks is a recent graduate of Wake STEM Early College High School located in Raleigh, NC and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics’ Online program. This fall, she will be an incoming first year at the engineering school at Columbia University. Ana loves all things STEM and dreams of changing the world through STEM education and educational advocacy. This summer, she has spent her time volunteering for the NCSSM STEM Scholars program.