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Monday, 27 July 2015 15:58

A Successful STEM School is a School without Walls

Written by  Russ Davis

The 20th Century model of education reflected the industrial age.  Students learned the only way they knew how: sitting in organized rows of desks in a classroom with a teacher and a chalk board.  Back then it seemed that without the classroom, there could be no learning.  As the industrial age gives way to an increasingly global one, schools are faced with the exciting task of reaching for and seeking out authentic learning experiences in the surrounding community. The physical confines of a school building can be limiting.  A successful school in the new century is a school without walls.

To that end, it is critical for schools to develop partnerships with colleges and corporations to provide students with amazing opportunities to succeed in STEM fields. As a Consortium school, we are always looking to go above and beyond the typical classroom experience. Our students do very well in AP and IB courses and can take advantage of higher level courses such as Organic Chemistry and Discrete Mathematics. Looking beyond the tradition classroom, our goal is to provide our students with unique opportunities and expose them to relevant career opportunities in the STEM fields. These efforts have resulted in meaningful collaborations, most notably our Senior Experience internship program, a Surgical Techniques course taught at a hospital course and more recently one of the largest High School Hackathons in the Country.

Through our “Senior Experience” internship program each of our 260 seniors spend each Wednesday throughout the school year in a workplace of their choosing. Students participate in high level internships in environments related to their STEM focus. Our medical students intern at local hospitals, students with an interest in science may intern at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, Engineering students intern at companies such as Reckitt Benckiser, Becton Dickenson and Mercedes Benz corporate headquarters. Some students have even had the opportunity to intern in the engineering department at the George Washington Bridge – what an amazing opportunity for a student interested in engineering!

Our “Surgical Techniques Course” came out of our existing partnership with the Chief of Vascular Surgery at a local hospital which has been an internship site for our students for over 15 years. In conversations with the surgeon he explained that students entering the medical profession need to choose a specialty at an earlier age. We then proposed having our science and medical students intern at the hospital lab and our “Surgical Techniques” elective was born. Twice a week students travel to a small lab within the hospital to learn various techniques including knot tying. The response to this elective has been overwhelming and our students are excited to obtain real world experience.

Recently, our school held one of the largest High School Hackathons in the Country. In its second year, HackBCA has grown into a unique opportunity for high students to come together to learn coding and compete in an overnight coding competition. This year the event has attracted major sponsors which have resulted in numerous benefits for our students and our school. While the event is exhausting for our teachers and staff, everyone agrees it is a truly worthwhile event. To witness the amount of coding being done by over 400 high school students at 3:00 a.m. in a high school gymnasium openly suggests that students enjoy working hard when challenged.

A classroom is more than a room in a school building with desks and a chalk board.  An office environment can be a classroom.  So can a hospital or a school gymnasium.  Forging unique and rich partnerships with corporations, organizations, alumni, and parents is the all-important first step.  It takes time and effort to nurture and grow these relationships.  While it may be tempting to put these efforts on the back burner (with everything educators have to do on a daily basis) these partnerships are absolutely critical to a program's long term success.  It isn’t always obvious where a partnership will lead at first.  Educators must remain open to the possibilities and let partnerships develop organically.  

Russ Davis is Principal of the Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, New Jersey. He also serves on the NCSSS Executive Board. Twitter@DavisBCA

Read 1894 times Last modified on Wednesday, 29 July 2015 16:23

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