Q: Please tell us about Wake STEM Early College High School (ECHS). Why was it created and what programs does it offer?
Schwenker: Wake STEM ECHS was created 5 years ago as a comprehensive learning environment where students underrepresented in STEM careers can fulfill all high school coursework and enroll in college courses at NCSU. The 5 year program provides a small learning environment with a maximum school population of 280 students (56 per grade level). We target recruit so that 50% of our student population is first generation college going. All high school coursework is taught through a Project Based Learning Pedagogy and each class incorporates a minimum of two projects a semester based around the Grand Challenges of Engineering. Each student also participates in one cross-curricular project a semester based on the Grand Challenges of Engineering following the Engineering Design Process created at NCSU. Students complete all Honors’ level coursework, and take the courses in Engineering Design along with Computer Programming I and II. During the students third year in high school, they begin to enroll in college courses, starting with an Intro to College class along with a college level Math. During their 4th and 5th years of high school, students continue to enroll in college course while completing 2 high school courses and a 135-hour internship related to 21st Century Skills and their intended area of study. The partnership between Wake County Public School, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and North Carolina State University allows the students to receive free college tuition, tutoring, supports, and all books paid for during their enrollment in the Early College Program.
Q: Can you share with us one or two success stories of Wake STEM Early College High School?
Schwenker: As we come to our first 5-year graduating class, we have many things to be proud of as a school. But today I will highlight Ms. Zipporiah Bush. Zipporiah represents all that is good with our program, as a minority female first generation college going student, Zipporiah is graduating in May from our program. She will graduate with her high school diploma as well as 63 college credits towards her intended major and minor. After graduation she will attend North Carolina State University for the Fall semester majoring in Bio-Chemistry with a minor in Japanese. She is a true STEM student who has embraced her role in changing the world.
As a school we have been honored to receive recognition from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction as a STEM School of Distinction. We have also just received recognition from North Carolina New Schools/Breakthrough Learning as a School of Innovation and Excellence.
Q: In your opinion, what are the top 3 reasons for students’ low STEM participation?
In my opinion top 3 reasons for low STEM participation.
As a professional educator, we oftentimes assume students understand the saying, “The Sky is the Limit”. However, students do not know the many opportunities afforded them outside their small world, their surrounding neighborhoods, or their immediate family and social circle. Having worked in diverse settings, I realize students have not been exposed to the many career opportunities afforded to them once they learn to think and act like a STEM professional. Exposing and teaching students about these opportunities results in low participation as students continue to limit themselves to their comfort zone.
The misunderstanding of STEM limits the audience for participation. STEM does not necessarily only refer to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, but incorporates all subject areas as a way to think and solve the problems of the world. At Wake STEM we emphasize the 4 C’s of education (Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Critical Thinking) and help students understand that you can major in Communications at a university and work in a STEM career. STEM is a way of thinking and seeing the world, not just in 4 areas of study, but in how they interact with all areas of life.
Societal changes have impacted the need for STEM education and we now have to keep up with the times. The changes in technology and the speed at which students can access information have grown exponentially. The open communication highway around the globe has allowed for an increase in sharing of knowledge and products. For students from many of our underrepresented demographics, the vastness of this new age is daunting. We need to help all of our students see how they individually can play a role in changing the world. The Grand Challenges has set forth a framework, coupled with the Engineering Design Process, for students to research and create solutions that are real.
Q: How can we increase students’ STEM participation?
Schwenker: We are a lucky school, in the fact we have over 550 applicants for the 56 openings each year. But this comes because of clear and constant communication from our entire community. My staff spends many evening target recruiting around our county, calling 8th grade students, communicating with counselors, principals, and teacher and asking for help and recommendations, then hosting information sessions for parents and students. Our partners and the media assist us in outreach to the community through public relations. Each year, we work to help students understand that they can have an impact on the world by researching and understanding the Grand Challenges, and therefore they are STEM.
Q: What recommendations and advice do you have for students who want to pursue STEM studies and careers?
Schwenker: Don’t be scared to try something new. You don’t have to be the most tech and math savvy person to be STEM. I come from a family of Math Wizards, my father taught math, my siblings are in the technology and engineering fields, yet I chose education. If you want to learn how to make a difference in the world and see how you fit into a picture greater than yourself – look at the Grand Challenges of Engineering, see how you can make an impact in solving these for our future. Maybe you are the news reporter sharing information about the issues, maybe you are the engineer creating the solutions, maybe you are the author or publisher bringing these issues to the public, or the historian researching how the past has impacted the present. No matter what your role, you can make a difference. In order to solve these Grand Challenges we need everyone to think STEM and understand how we all impact one another.