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School's biomed program on cutting edge

December 16, 2008|By ARNOLD PLATOU

HAGERSTOWN -- Jeffery Stouffer is practically beside himself with excitement.

"We have the hottest lab here in the county. Must be close to 45, 50 kids in here visiting today. There is so much interest. They're really excited," said Stouffer, principal of Washington County Technical High School.

"It's wonderful that right here in little old Washington County, we've got this fantastic, cutting-edge program."

Tech High, home of the county's new Academy for Biomedical Sciences, is among a few dozen high schools nationwide pioneering the Project Lead the Way biomed program.

"We have beaucoup kids who want to get into the program," said George Phillips, supervisor of career technology and enrichment programs for Washington County Public Schools. "It's become very quickly a popular destination for students.

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"In fact, we're struggling with, what are we going to do with all the kids who want to get into the program?" Phillips said.

The program, soon likely to be enhanced by an agreement awarding course credits from Hagerstown Community College, is the latest in the school system's intensifying focus on math and science technology-driven careers.

For starters, there is something called STEM.

The race is on

For years, schools have taught what is now known widely as STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- said Sandra Graff, supervisor of secondary science for local schools.

"What's happening now, in my opinion, is very similar to what happened in the 1950s after Sputnik," Graff said. Launched by the Soviet Union, Sputnik was the world's first satellite to orbit Earth, and its success sparked the U.S.-Russian space race.

Now, "there's a greater awareness of the need to be more competitive in those areas in business and industry and science," Graff said. "We need to be competitive globally."

Underscoring the need for such education even more is that "Maryland has become a center in the U.S. and in the world for biotechnology," she said. "There is a huge influx into Maryland with Interstate 95 and with Interstate 270 of such companies.

"And Washington County is the next step over the next mountain."

The explosion of technology and technology-based job opportunities has highlighted the need for more such education in public schools and colleges, Graff said.

Snagging grants

Throughout Maryland, lawmakers saw the need. In 2006 and each year since, Maryland's General Assembly has set aside $2 million to be awarded competitively to county school systems proposing more aggressive STEM programs.

Washington County is "one of the few systems that has gotten money every year," said Donna Watts, coordinator for mathematics and STEM initiatives for the Maryland State Department of Education.

In all, the county has won $275,000 in the past three years -- $100,000 of it for the current school year, Watts said.

Watts said the grants are being given to the county because of the uniqueness of its approach -- "a campus approach, where they were looking at the pipeline coming from elementary to middle to high school."

The pipeline -- the concentrated flow of STEM-based learning -- begins at Williamsport Elementary School, continues at Springfield Middle School in Williamsport, and, this year, was extended to Williamsport High School, Graff said.

"At Williamsport Elementary, they've elected to focus heavily on math instruction and have elected to have a school theme of environmental science," she said. "So, at every grade level, they have environmental projects and field trips and speakers.

"Do the kids know they want to be environmental scientists? No, but they're being given a planned, richer experience than they would through the normal curriculum."

Ideally, every school could focus on STEM if it had the latest in technology, Watts said. "It's so cost-prohibitive to make every school have that kind of infrastructure, so what we see more often than not is the magnet school," she said.

Here, Graff said, the three Williamsport schools are becoming the county's magnets for STEM. And, as with any of the county's magnet schools, students from anywhere in the county can apply to attend them, she said.

"If you have a first-grader that's very interested in writing, reading ... then, they might apply to be part of a magnet program at Emma K. Doub (Elementary), which has a magnet in humanities and technology. Fountaindale Elementary has an elementary arts magnet.

"And none of this is exclusive. It isn't like you go into Williamsport Elementary and the only thing you ever study is math and science."

Leading the way

In the meantime, Maryland increased its use of Project Lead the Way Inc., a New York-based nonprofit organization founded in the late 1990s to spur technology education.

Maryland already had worked with the organization to develop a curriculum that meets national standards on pre-engineering.

The result here is that both Williamsport High and Tech High offer the engineering concentration.

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