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STEM Makes a Difference

It may seem obvious, but it’s worth remembering that improvements to school programs can make a profound difference in young people’s lives.

That thought occurred to me when I met with a group of ambitious students at the Chesapeake High STEM Academy, a public school in Essex, Md.

This is not a fancy suburban school, but one that shares many characteristics of urban schools.

The half-dozen students—most of them seniors at the school—described to me their lofty career goals, such as medicine and biomedical, electrical, robotics, and civil engineering.

They are pursuing those goals by taking a host of courses in AP subjects and following the national Project Lead the Way curriculum, which aims to boost preparation in science, technology, engineering, and math.

It is unlikely that these students would have had much of a shot at those goals, at least not at that school, if they had started there three or four years ago. Back then, Chesapeake High School, as it was known then, was “a school no one wanted,” according to Joe Hairston, the superintendent of the Baltimore County Public Schools.

In an interview, he said several hundred teenagers in the school’s attendance zone were enrolled in other high schools because their parents did not want them at the low-performing Chesapeake.

When the district received $1.3 million from the Maryland government to create a STEM academy, “people thought I was crazy when I chose Chesapeake,” he said.

Hairston brought a new principal, Maria Lowry, to the school and stocked it with AP courses and technology.

Innovations at the school include hands-on approaches, such as using bottle rockets to study trajectory. Some AP teachers record lessons as podcasts, which their students can listen to using the Zen mp3 players that the school has issued them.

Chesapeake has also become a focal point for a partnership Hairston has established with local defense contractors to develop high-tech experiences for students that teach academic content while mimicking the operations of the companies.

Read my story in Digital Directions on this effort. You can also see a video of a portion of my interview with Hairston.

“We can’t continue to look at learning in a vacuum,” Principal Lowry said of the partnership.

The approach of infusing academic learning with its real-world applications shows students why their studies matter, she said. “You can give me a key to a door knob, but until I put the key in the lock and try it, it’s a mystery. I don’t really know that it works.”

One student commented, “We’re coming out of this school with some skills that people who study at college don’t get.”

It will be worth keeping an eye on Chesapeake, to see whether this STEM academy might be cutting a key that works for other schools, too.

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