Students at the STEM High School in the Rochester City School District will be tackling public health problems.
The projects are one aspect of a partnership between STEM High School and Rochester Institute of Technology that aims to prepare students for college better and create a new model of a high school-college partnership.
The genesis of the partnership actually predates STEM High School itself. Douglas Merrill, as director of the Center for Bioscience Education and Technology at RIT, went to the state Legislature in 2000 with a proposal to address workforce readiness.
Merrill applied for funding through Restore New York, which created capital projects to develop a 21st-century workforce.
"We knew that in order to have a successful conversion from a manufacturing economy to a 21st-century, technology-based economy, you have to have the right people in place," Merrill said. "Here at RIT we've been doing that for our entire history, and we wanted a chance to create a center that would assist in the development of this workforce pipeline."
Merrill proposed that RIT would work with schools on the K-12 level, educating teachers and students to give them the skills needed for the modern workforce. The university also would work with local and regional companies to address their workforce needs.
Since the RIT center opened in 2007, it has made outreach efforts in the community to assist in the development of the bioscience workforce, Merrill said. When RCSD announced the opening of a high school with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, he reached out to the district.
"I contacted the principal, Kathleen Denaro, and told her that we do a lot of things with K-12, though all the things we'd done so far had not necessarily focused in STEM," Merrill said. "She liked what she heard, and our partnership has grown from there."
STEM High School has a curriculum developed with help from the National Academy Foundation. The school is split into three separate academies for engineering, information technology and health sciences. Each school has an advisory board, with representatives from business and other higher education institutions locally.
Merrill is board chairman for the health sciences academy, but he said he wanted a hands-on approach when working with the school and its students.
"One of the first things I did when I was accepted as a partner was to get to know the students," Merrill said. "I created an elective course and spent time teaching them so I could better understand where they're coming from and what their skill levels are. That way I can be in a better position to recommend changes."
Merrill started teaching last spring and now is developing a curriculum for career and technical education. The citizen science program, which will have students take on projects in the community, is part of that curriculum.
The new standard for teaching science requires actual participation in the scientific process, Merrill noted, making the program a perfect fit at the school.
"They choose a problem in the community they want to tackle, and with our help they connect all the data, create a report and then present it to the appropriate government body," he said. "The important thing is that they choose the topics themselves. That way they're invested in it."
The program also will be great for students because they are gaining college experience with a college professor, said Kathleen Denaro, principal of the STEM High School. Too many students never think of themselves as college material, she said, but completing a large-scale scientific project helps to change that.
"The opportunity for them to work with someone of Dr. Merrill's caliber is great," she said. "It gives them not only a sense of pride or intrinsic motivation but also a sense of accomplishment to see that they are capable and confident to think about college-level work and materials."
One of the more important roles the partner institutions play for STEM High School and its students is to create connections for them, said Laurel Sanger, dean of science, health and business at Monroe Community College. Sanger, who is on the advisory board for the health academy at the high school, said MCC advises students on what it takes to complete internships in the health care field, then helps them find these internships.
"I've also set up opportunities for several teachers from the health academy to come over to MCC for development," Sanger said. "This allows them to go back and better mentor and advise these kids."
The benefits go both ways, Sanger added. Students who receive this instruction and who benefit from the connections with MCC and other institutions are better prepared for college when they finish high school, she said.
"This is a great way to connect higher education to the high school and connect the high school to higher education," Sanger said.
With the project and the school's partnership with RIT, Merrill said he hopes to change some of the culture and encourage more interest in the STEM fields.
With state reports showing that less than 10 percent of students in RCSD graduate prepared for college, the partnership has great potential, he added.
"I asked some of the students why this percentage was so low, and I found that for many of them it's not cool to be smart and to want to come in and do your work," Merrill said. "I think we have a chance to change that culture and make the kids in this program the coolest on campus.
"We want STEM High School to be a place that people are lining up to get into."
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