BANGOR, Maine — Bangor High School administrators got enthusiastic and unanimous approval from the Bangor School Committee Wednesday night to establish a science, technology, engineering and mathematics-based program at Bangor High School.
“I’m just so excited to think that Bangor High School will be the first STEM school in the state of Maine and one of 100 in the country,” said Bangor School Superintendent Betsy Webb.
Officials, administrators and teachers alike believe the groundbreaking STEM Academy plan will bloom and bear fruit in a lot of ways for Bangor as well as the entire state.
A unanimous 6-0 committee vote, with one member absent, means school officials can start the program up as early as the fall of 2012.
“That’s our plan,” said Webb. “This benefits Bangor students first, but it positions us to attract more tuition students as well.”
Bangor, which currently has 179 tuition students, could be at the head of the class if the Maine Legislature enacts school choice, a school voucher program, or proceeds with innovative school legislation.
“We already have everything in place to make this happen in a fairly polished manner right out of the gate,” said Bangor High science department head Cary James, who co-authored the proposal with Bangor High chemistry teacher Sasha Alcott. “We have kids with high aspirations, we have great teaching, and we have the infrastructure in place.”
James projects a target “class” of about 20 students the first year.
“That’s kind of arbitrary, but it’s a number we feel we can deal with,” he said. “There’s no entrance requirement for the school so technically anyone who wants to can come into the school, but what they need to do is make a pretty significant commitment of time and energy.”
The program, which would be added to the curricula already available at Bangor High, would be the first of its kind in the state, Bangor school officials said.
“Paul called this Bangor High School on steroids,” joked James, who was referring to Bangor High Principal Paul Butler.
The academy would offer new courses for high school students to take, but also an entirely new discipline or course of study. They would have advance placement opportunities in various courses, a chance to get a head start on a college degree and graduate with a degree in even advanced majors such as engineering in as few as three years, and opportunities to take part in college-level research projects while still in high school.
“If a student really wants to take a robotics class, she’s in,” James said. “Students can be academy students and sit in classes side by side with other students taking a traditional high school curriculum like business or college prep.”
The program offers both new electives, and a whole new curriculum.
“We’re looking at four years of science at the honors level or higher including two AP science courses. The current requirement at BHS is three years,” said Alcott. “We’re also introducing physics in the ninth grade.”
There is debate in academic circles about introducing physics at the freshman level, but Alcott says current research shows it’s not when physics is taught, but how, which is key.
“We’re also increasing the math requirement from three to four years along with two big changes: Making sure students take AP calculus and also taking the current courses of algebra II and pre-calculus and condensing them down to one,” Alcott explained. “I’m really excited about this.”
Another addition will be two engineering/technology courses, which will involve sophomores and juniors taking a technology course in the fall semester and an engineering course in the spring.
The University of Maine has already committed to a partnership with Bangor through its engineering department.
“That opens up all kinds of areas like biotechnology, computer technology, nanotechnology,” Alcott said. “I think kids are going to have a blast understanding what it really means to engineer something.”
Local businesses and nonprofit organizations would also be asked to partner up to set up mentoring internships. James first became familiar with the STEM concept about six years ago at an education conference in Augusta.
Another aspect of the STEM Academy involves both students and teachers mentoring and sharing projects with lower grade levels in Bangor as well as schools outside Bangor.
“We would love to be able to do outreach and provide scale models for other schools,” said Webb.
James said the timing is perfect for STEM and Bangor.
“It’s come to the forefront recently, particularly with Governor LePage’s administration as this is a particular concern for him,” said James. “The commissioner of education and the governor are both really behind this model.”
Butler says STEM, boiled down to simple ideals, is all about inquiry and scientific-mathematic application.
“When you’re describing the program to an outsider and you say STEM Academy … What is it?” said Butler. “We’re bringing them in, we’re telling them how to be scientific thinkers, we’re coupling it with baseline science, and we’re pushing this boat on them so by the time you’re a junior, you’re really a thinker and you have your STEM legs under you so you’re going to start doing applied research and it’s really going to take off for you and be the highest quality you can imagine, supported by ongoing professional development in the department.”