Need for STEM academy

This summer West Virginia students gifted in math and science are attending the Governor’s School for Math and Science. Eighth graders will study the universe at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Greenbank. At WVU, 7th graders already completed “Mythbusters,” a program in the spirit of Carl Sagan’s belief that unreason is a “dangerous plunge into darkness that threatens our most basic freedoms.”

These are clearly great opportunities. However, the governor’s school isn’t a school: it’s a summer camp and it only lasts 10 to 14 days. Considering these students will one day compete with those from other states, it might be useful to learn about other governors’ schools.

In South Carolina, they too have a governor’s school for math and science. Does it last 10 days? No, it’s a real school – in fact, a residential boarding school for grades 11 and 12. And it’s not just South Carolina that believes students are worth more than a 10-day summer camp; 28 other states have high schools specializing in math and science. They are known as STEM schools-an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In 2008, the Marshall University-based June Harless Center aimed to found a four-year, residential STEM high school. However by 2011 they concluded it was impossible to raise the funding. STEM schools in other states require annual budgets over $20 million-and these are two or three-year high schools. Six years since they envisioned a STEM high school, the Harless center is now focusing on a STEM program for local kindergarten through fifth-grade students. While the Harless center should be commended for their efforts, the state should not give up on establishing a STEM high school-and the governor seems to agree.

In his State of the State Address, Gov. Tomblin called STEM initiatives “the foundation of a good education.” To make good on Tomblin’s words, West Virginia needs a STEM high school – a learning laboratory to test new curricula for the whole state. And if the Mountain State creates a STEM school, it can join the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Science and Technology (NCSSSMST). This alliance is where the best STEM schools in the country share breakthrough innovations that give students a leg up when applying to top universities.

The Marshall-based educators spent six years trying to create a four-year STEM high school in the remote southern part of the state. Now we have a second chance to get it right: we need a centrally-located, 11th and 12th-grade, residential STEM academy that students from the entire state can attend. Factoring in the two panhandles and the state’s Upper South, the academy should be based somewhere near Interstate 79 in central or north-central West Virginia. This is also an ideal location for internships: students will be in close proximity to West Virginia’s High Technology Corridor that includes NASA, the FBI and other STEM-relevant entities.

Tomblin says he’s enthusiastic about STEM education. Now it’s time to step up to the plate like other governors and create a STEM academy. With his background as a teacher, championing this project would be the perfect legacy to impart on West Virginia.