Early college high school students confront real-world issues

January 9, 2012

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A new partnership between NC State University and the Wake County Public School System is putting students on a fast track to college – and to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.

The Wake NC State Early College High School opened this past fall in a building on Varsity Drive. The inaugural class of 55 students is specializing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), fields where studies often show the United States falling behind.

The early college high school’s curriculum is built around the Grand Challenges for Engineering, 14 global issues identified by the National Academy of Engineering. The challenges range from reshaping the future of energy to preventing nuclear terrorism and creating better medicines.

“The Grand Challenges cover the four basic disciplines of life, earth, chemical and physical science,” Principal Rob Matheson said. “To me, there’s something in there for everybody.”

This year, the course of study is focused on providing access to clean water. Students engage with the issue in every discipline. In engineering classes, they’ve built model towns and addressed water issues in them. In a humanities class, students wrote children’s books about alternative energy or water access issues. The books subsequently went to third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students at Wake County elementary schools. In December, the early-college high school students were waiting for feedback from elementary-school teachers on their books.

Engineering teacher Leigh Ciancanelli talks to students at the Wake NC State Early College High School.

The idea is to combine a technical understanding of the issues identified by the Grand Challenges with an appreciation of their social, legal and human implications, Matheson said. The wide-ranging assignments are indicative of the project-based approach taken by teachers at the school. All teachers at the early college high school were master teachers at their previous schools.

“We really do try to make it applicable, to make it mean something,” said Leigh Ciancanelli, an engineering teacher. “It’s not just learning a definition from a science book. You have to apply it.”

That approach had a significant role in attracting students to the school.

“This is my perfect school because I’m going to be taught everything but then I’ll also be doing hands-on engineering,” said Girdhar Kareer, a freshman from Apex.

“The teaching style is different here,” said student Ray-Ray Smith, a freshman from Raleigh. “The teachers give you a lot of projects so you can do hands-on activities to actually get the concept of what they’re teaching.”

Many of the early college high school’s students are from populations that traditionally go under-represented in STEM jobs: minorities, females and the economically challenged. Part of the school’s mission is to address disparities in STEM fields, Matheson said.

The school offers a five-year program during which students can earn college credit. Their exposure to college life will increase during their time at the school, Matheson said, from campus visits in the first two years to taking courses at NC State as upperclassmen. Plans call for high school students to work with NC State student mentors.

“There are lots of resources and avenues for us to explore in terms of developing partnerships with NC State,” Matheson said.