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Cristian Sepulveda, right, and Trevor Leavitt, left, students in the STEAM Ahead program at Manchester High School West, use their laptops in biology class. (TED SIEFER/UNION LEADER)

STEAM Ahead program gives students a taste of higher-level science, math, arts


MANCHESTER -- The students crouched intently over laptop computers, inputting data from a chemistry experiment. It was the kind of thing one might expect to find in a college biology lab, but this scene took place Wednesday at Manchester High School West, and the students were only freshmen.

Creating a college-level environment is the basic point of the new program the students are participating in, STEAM Ahead. After more than a year of planning, lofty presentations and fundraising, the program is now a reality for the 55 West students who make up its inaugural class.

Launched in partnership with the Internet technology company Dyn and the marketing firm SilverTech, STEAM Ahead aims to transform students’ high school experience into a training ground for careers in science, technology, engineering, arts and math — hence the acronym.

When the students are juniors and seniors, the plan is for them to be able to take courses for college credit and participate in internships and other real-world learning opportunities.

School within a school

One thing that quickly becomes apparent in observing STEAM Ahead is that it functions like a school within a school, with its own curriculum and practices.

The classrooms, which are all painted with the STEAM logo, are clustered in one section of the school. Students of all levels are in the same class; all of the students have laptops. Teachers try to keep lecturing time down to 15 minutes, and lessons are built around student projects — or “project-based-learning,” in the lingo.

On Wednesday morning, the students gave presentations before Superintendent Debra Livingston and Mayor Ted Gatsas, a strong backer of the program. Engineering teacher Dan Colburn had asked the students to build a “robotic arm” using cardboard, duct tape and other items scattered around the campus as part of a scavenger hunt. (Another goal of the project was for the freshmen to get better acquainted with the campus.)

“We’re trying to get them to think that education isn’t boring, that going to school isn’t boring,” Colburn explained during lunch with the other STEAM teachers. “It’s a lot more discovery-based, going for the ‘aha moment.’”

There is one early indicator of success: attendance. The teachers report absences so far this school year have been exceedingly rare among the STEAM students.

Everyone who has wanted to join STEAM this year has been able to do so; the program is capped at 75 students for each school year.

The teachers said that the program has attracted a broad range of students, not just high-achieving types, and that so far they’re doing well working together in the same classrooms.

“I think the stronger kids do a great job modeling behavior and getting the other kids to go along with them,” biology teacher Christine Aspinwall said.

The program has its own college and career coordinator, Lucy Weathers, who is arranging trips to local companies and organizations, including the Currier Museum and the Palace Theatre.

Touch-screen laptops

A centerpiece of the program are the touch-screen laptop computers, which each student collects at the beginning of class. The computers are connected to the school WiFi network; the students use Google programs to collaborate on projects in groups. (The students can access the Internet during class, but social networking sites, such as Facebook, are blocked.)

One principle behind STEAM is that having clear career goals will motivate students and focus their attention, but it’s safe to say that purpose is also served by shiny laptops. During Aspinwall’s biology class on Wednesday, the students were using the laptops to make graphs based on the results of an experiment the previous day that involved curdling milk.

“Up until last year, we were doing it with graph paper,” Aspinwall said. “It took so much time. Nobody in the world does hand-drawn graphs.”

Several students reported that they found the STEAM classes “easier” than what they were used to, but at the same time they insisted they were learning more.

“I’ve always liked doing projects,” said Makayla Valentin, who was working alongside Anzania Norman and Elizabeth Dionne. “Everyone cares about what they do. There aren’t kids just messing around. I like that.”

tsiefer@unionleader.com


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