Point of View

Putting the science spotlight on a Raleigh magnet school

February 22, 2013 

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VLADYSLAV MAKAROV — Getty Images/iStockphoto

  • The STEM school

    The STEM Early College High School is a joint project of Wae County public schools, N.C. State University and the N.C. New Schools Project. Find out more at http://stemec. wcpss.net/.

A Raleigh high school is leading a revolution in education based upon 14 game-changing technological goals for humanity, and so, in this awards season, I propose the city – already a mecca for innovators – as the venue for a complementary and equally bold new Academy Awards event.

Instead of recognizing visionary filmmaking skill, however, these honors would spotlight creativity and progress in turning society’s dreams into reality.

One future contender might be Gabrielle “Gabby” Respess. She is in 10th grade at STEM Early College High School, a unique Raleigh school that is becoming a model for how to create engineering stars or simply to get students excited about learning.

No one in Gabby’s family has gone to college. Many of her classmates are from disadvantaged backgrounds. But there is excitement about the future in her school because they are literally focused on changing the world.

The ideas that form the basis of Gabby’s school and my awards event concept began taking shape six years ago when an international “dream team” of some of this generation’s leading technological thinkers and doers – a Google co-founder, a former U.S. Secretary of Defense, a Nobel Prize winner and more than a dozen others with similar credentials – gathered to begin a project aimed at dramatically improving the future.

The National Academy of Engineering all-star committee knew that civilization had been transformed by engineering achievements in the last century: television, automobiles, airplanes, refrigeration, the electric grid, computers, the Internet. They believed advances in this century could be no less dramatic, but that audacious goals were needed.

The NAE group outlined 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering. All would improve the way we live. Some could save our planet. The NAE Grand Challenges awards should generate as much excitement and publicity as the Oscars.

Issues addressed in the challenges flow through the curriculum in Gabby’s school – not just in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses but in classes like English, social studies and art.

“We want future engineers to be able to function within STEM,” says principal Robert Matheson, “while possessing a solid grounding in humanities that allows innovation to be put into practice.”

When first told about the new magnet school, Gabby, like most K-12 students, was confused by the word engineer. “I always thought it was like a mechanic,” she says. “I never thought that an engineer could design stuff that could help in so many areas.”

That is a major problem for society. Lots of kids dream of being movie stars walking down the red carpet at the Oscars. Let’s entice more kids to dream of being engineers in the spotlight, winning awards honoring work toward enhancing quality of life around the globe.

While many science fiction-like dreams have come true thanks to engineers, many still need to be realized, and unintended consequences, like excessive carbon emissions, need remedies. The biggest impediment to our future may be how few people –particularly among the youngest generation – know the fundamental way dreams become basic modern conveniences and lives become more secure.

It’s engineering, the “E” in STEM education.

If the NAE Grand Challenges got half as much attention as the Oscars, an unstoppable momentum would surely lead us to new breakthroughs we can’t even imagine. Making celebrities out of engineering stars would ignite a broad movement of people inspired to make important things happen.

In isolated pockets, like at Gabby Respess’s school in Raleigh, such a revolution may be taking root. “If other schools across the country started modeling themselves after ours,” says Gabby, “we could be working toward solving those Grand Challenges.”

It is urgent because dreams need doing.

Randy Atkins is director of communications and leads the Grand Challenges for Engineering project for the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

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