New regional STEM school draws a few local students

Andrew Hubner of Shoreham-Wading River High School, physics teacher Andrew Kolchin, Asia McElroy from Riverhead High School and former Riverhead High School student Phil Becker of Bay Shore do some experiments with Newtown's Cradle Friday at BOCES' new Regional STEM high school in Bellport. (Credit: Tim Gannon)
Andrew Hubner of Shoreham-Wading River High School, physics teacher Andrew Kolchin, Asia McElroy from Riverhead High School and former Riverhead High School student Phil Becker of Bay Shore do some experiments with Newton’s Cradle Friday at BOCES’ new Regional STEM high school in Bellport. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

How often do high school graduates wonder how they will ever use the things they learned in high school once they get into the “real world?”

For Andrew Hubner of Shoreham, at least, that’s not a question right now. 

The Shoreham-Wading River High School junior is one of seven students from eastern Suffolk County who are attending the county’s first high school focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics — otherwise known as a STEM school.

“I’m hoping to get into chemical engineering because that’s my passion, and I’m hoping to build a good foundation for when I go off to college,” said Andrew.

Eastern Suffolk BOCES opened its first regional STEM high school — open to students throughout the region — this fall at its Gary Bixhorn Technical Center in Bellport.

The opening comes in the wake of steps being taken across the country to improve America’s educational standing on the global stage in scientific fields.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the nation ranks 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among industrialized nations. And while only  16 percent of high school seniors are interested in a STEM career, the DOE reports, science-based careers are among the most expected to increase through 2020.

The White House issued a 143-page report in May of last year detailing continued efforts to increase STEM funding through a variety of channels, namely the federal government’s Race to the Top program as well as efforts to hire and re-educate the nation’s K-12 science and math teachers. And last week, state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) was on hand to issue a $100,000 check from New York State.

The Gary Bixhorn Tech Center only has 7 students in its first year, in part because the funding for it didn’t arrive until July, by which time most students had already set their schedule for this semester, physics teacher Edward Moloney said. In addition, this first year is only eligible for high school juniors, whereas next year and in subsequent years, the school will have juniors and seniors.

The students can still participate in sports, graduation and other programs at their home districts.

Pooling regional resources for the select group who decide to take the STEM curriculum opens doors for the students and school districts alike, said Riverhead Assistant Superintendent for curriculum and instruction David Wicks.

“That’s the beauty of this type of program,” he said. “With just two kids, it’s not feasible for us to do this in-house. But with a regional program, you can support the program.”

All school districts in the region pay into the administrative budget for Eastern Suffolk BOCES, and only districts with students participating in the STEM school pay, on a per pupil basis.

Mr. Moloney’s classroom has a 3D printer, where students can design objects on the computer and then see them actually built on the 3D printer. The printer had made a working, adjustable wrench in a prior demonstration, Andrew said.

There’s also a wind tunnel in the class, where students will design a turbine and then be graded on which turbine produced the most energy, and made the least noise, Mr. Moloney said. Also in the classroom is a solar-powered oven, capable of reaching temperatures as high as 350-degrees, he added.

In addition, engineering and architecture software such Auto CAD (computer aided design)

“The STEM high school is based on ‘Project Lead the Way’ engineering curriculum, which is a college-level curriculum that is being taught to high school students,” Mr. Moloney said.

Project Lead The Way (PLTW) is a nonprofit organization that develops hands-on, project-based STEM curricula for use by schools.

As far as the course load goes, in their junior year, students will take four credits of Project Lead the Way engineering, along with algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus or AP Calculus; AP or Regents Physics; English 11; physical education and health; and U.S. History.

In their senior year, students will take four periods of PLTW engineering, an internship program, English, pre-calculus or AP calculus, AP or Regents chemistry, physical education and economics/government.

“When they finish this course, they will have skills that they can use in the real world engineering environment or they can choose to go on to college,” Mr. Moloney said, adding that college credits will be available to colleges such as Rochester Institute of Technology, among others.

Asia McElroy of Riverhead High School is hoping to get into the field of biomedical engineering, and she is also attending the STEM school.

“There’s a shortage of female engineers and I’ve heard companies are looking for more female engineers,” Asia said.

She’s also the only female in the engineering class. While the school only started on Sept. 1, she says, “I like it. It’s very direct.”

Schools like this could become the wave of the future, Mr. Moloney said.

“There’s a STEM shortage out there right now and it’s predicted that the STEM occupations will grow twice as fast as the rest of the industry, so it’s very relevant to the students now,” Mr. Moloney said.

The STEM school, held in a classroom that previous was used for a cosmetology class, has a number of Riverhead connections.

Mr. Wicks and former Riverhead assistant superintendent Peggy Staib, who is now an associate superintendent for the Eastern Suffolk Board of Cooperative Educational Services, are the co-chairs of the STEM High School advisory board for BOCES, and Sam McAleese, the principal of Bixhorn Tech, is a former principal at the BOCES Harry B. Ward Technical Center in Riverhead.

Julie Lutz, Eastern Suffolk BOCES chief operating officer, confirmed that Mr. LaValle has stressed the need for such a school many times to them, and she’s happy to finally deliver.

“You watch something in the planning stages for so many, many months and then you actually see it come to fruition, it really is an amazing thing,” she said Friday.