BUSINESS JOURNAL: Making Connections

School Exposes Youth To Practical Applications Of STEM Studies

Posted: April 29, 2014

Kevin Sokolyuk, a freshman at Harrisonburg High School, discusses his tower project with HHS Principal Tracy Shaver during teacher Adam Benson’s STEM Explorations I class on April 22. (Photo by Jeremy Hunt / DN-R)
Jonathan Aigner, a freshman at Harrisonburg High School, works on his tower project during teacher Adam Benson’s STEM Explorations I class on April 22. (Photo by Jeremy Hunt / DN-R)

HARRISONBURG — Tyler Sutton enrolled in the Governor’s STEM Academy at Harrisonburg High School to feed his interest in engineering.

The freshman wants to attend Virginia Tech after he graduates, and if he sticks with the academy, he should have a solid foundation to build upon as he seeks a bachelor’s degree.

Tyler should also have a pretty good idea what specifically he’ll want to study at Tech, courtesy of the science, technology, engineering and math program at HHS.

“By going through all the classes, it helps you pinpoint what you want to do later in life,” he said recently during a STEM Explorations I course focusing on engineering.

Tyler and his peers are part of the second class of the Governor’s STEM Academy at HHS, one of 23 academies out of 340 public high schools throughout the commonwealth with the designation.

The Virginia Department of Education approved HHS’ program in June, giving it the official recognition with the governor’s stamp.

The goal of the academies is to increase opportunities for students to pursue those areas of study and in the process prepare them for “high-demand, high-wage, and high-skill careers in Virginia,” according to the DOE.

Harrisonburg City Public Schools also has similar academies at Thomas Harrison and Skyline Middle schools, as well as STEM education at the elementary level.

Hands-on learning with practical applications to real-life situations in a collaborative environment is central to the programs, according to Scott Kizner, superintendent of HCPS.

“When they go into college, and even if they don’t go into college, I think they’re going to walk away so much more self-sufficient, because they’re able to look at the bigger picture and see that there’s more than one solution,” Kizner said.

Kathryn Hulleman, a freshman at HHS who wants to be an environmental engineer, said she has learned the importance of planning through the academy.

“You can’t just write up something and it’s perfect and it’s done,” she said.

Nick Swayne, chairman of the Harrisonburg City School Board, said it’s critical to expose kids to the practical application of STEM fields at a young age.

“If you think back to when you were in school, around about the time you got in middle school, you asked the teacher, ‘Why do I have to learn this?’” Swayne said. “[With] some kids, that happens in third or fourth grade. What that means is students aren’t seeing the relevance. If they’re not seeing the relevance, they’re not going to be as inclined to learn.”

A recent project in Adam Benson’s class — the one Tyler and Kathryn are enrolled in — was to build model towers designed to withstand seismic activity.

For the project, students analyzed real-world engineering disasters and how they could be avoided in the future, Benson explained.

They also meet with area professionals to discuss what they’re working on, which gives them an idea of the differences between electrical and chemical engineers, for example.

“They get even more of an idea of what each engineer does,” Benson said.

The division’s STEM curriculum is informed by an advisory committee that includes professionals and professors at James Madison University.

“When we have people doing [STEM] every day, we learn from them what the expectations are when students may end up in their place of employment,” Kizner said.

STEM education is designed to meet the division’s overall goal of preparing students for the future, Kizner said.

“The key thing is,” he said, “students have to see education as meaningful and relevant.”

Contact Jeremy Hunt at 574-6273 or jhunt@dnronline.com



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