Academy boom: County’s specialized science high school programs push project-based learning

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Math, Engineering, & Science Academy students set aside the books to tackle hands-on group projects. Photo: Jeff Prillaman Math, Engineering, & Science Academy students set aside the books to tackle hands-on group projects. Photo: Jeff Prillaman

In 2009, Albemarle County launched its Math, Engineering & Science Academy (MESA) at Albemarle High School as a pilot program for a new model of learning. Five years later, enrollment in MESA has more than doubled, and administrators are taking more steps towards career-oriented learning with a strong hands-on component in other fields. Two years ago, the school system added the Health & Medical Sciences Academy for students interested in careers in the medical field, and this year, the Environmental Studies Academy will be up and running.

The academies, which use curricula centered around active group orojects to get students excited about a particular field, are getting increasingly more popular and competitive. The success of the academies has led school officials to begin revamping classroom methods in schools across the county, trading in rows of desks and textbooks for group tables and technology that encourage collaboration and critical thinking. 

“You know that if you master these skills and come out with some competencies in these areas, there’s going to be a profession for you to go into,” said Albemarle County Schools spokesperson Phil Giaramita. “You’ll be someone who will be in high demand, and may have your choice of job opportunities.” 

MESA is a two- or four-year program, depending on whether kids enter as 9th or 11th graders, that’s built around the concept of hands-on, project-centric learning that integrates math and science. Housed in the newly built wing of AHS, the MESA classrooms are where kids accepted into the academy spend at least 25 percent of their high school careers. The demand has continued to grow since the inaugural year, and the academy is accepting upwards of 70 kids per year, more than double the originally estimated 25 to 30.  

As MESA’s popularity grew, educators at other county schools took notice and started brainstorming how to apply the project-based method to other fields. Teachers and parents at Monticello High School stepped up to start the Health & Medical Sciences Academy, which is designed to prepare kids for health field careers ranging from x-ray technician to heart surgeon. The academy accepted its first class of 25 students in 2012, and is bringing in a class of 45 freshmen this year. Over at Western Albemarle High School, 24 students are gearing up for the Environmental Studies Academy’s first year.

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills are in high demand in the job force, Giaramita said, and a lot of high school students are eager to get ahead as early as possible. 

The one downside of these academies, said Giaramita, is the fact that they simply don’t have room for all the students clamoring for a spot. More than 200 kids from all over the county applied for the 70 openings that MESA had available this year, and it’s getting more competitive every year.  

Teachers and administrators begin familiarizing students with the academies while they’re in middle school, and interested kids apply while they’re still in eighth grade. Each academy has an admissions committee to review applications, and interested applicants have to demonstrate leadership skills and the ability to work well with a team. Giaramita said good grades are a factor, but what’s more important are the recom-mendations from teachers, who may recognize a student’s potential even if his or her grades aren’t the best. 

“It’s really about the interest the student has in the academy’s curriculum,” he said. “One of the most successful kids we’ve seen at MESA was actually a struggling middle school student, but a number of teachers saw the potential there, and those recommendations were very influential.”

MESA Director Jeff Prillaman, who graduated from UVA in the 1980s with an engineering degree, started teaching high school math in 1999. He said County Superintendent Pamela Moran first con-ceptualized MESA about eight years ago, and he was instrumental in its creation. 

“I saw that kids who are into music or drama had all these electives,” Prillaman said. “But if you’re a math and science person, there are no real electives after the AP classes.”

The 9th and 10th grade MESA students take their core math and science classes through the academy, but the classes for upperclassmen are considered electives. For the younger students especially, Prillaman said one of the biggest differences is that the curriculum bridges the “when am I going to use this” gap.

“We’re really integrating math and science,” he said. “If they learn something in math, we try to teach them how to apply it in science as much as possible. If you’re learning quadratics in algebra two, that’s related to projective motion in physics.”

Prillaman said his students range from the straight-A bookish types to the kids who help their dad fix the tractor on the family farm, and in the five years he’s been teaching academy classes, he’s almost never had to deal with behavioral issues or even tardiness. 

“Students might be late for another class because they don’t want to leave my class,” he said with a laugh.

But specialized academies like MESA, where kids are surrounded by peers with the same interests and passions, are about more than just the academics. MESA students tend to flock together, and it has created a community similar to sports teams, the marching band, and other groups with their own niche and spot on campus.  

“They have a place to go every day, in the morning, at lunch,” Prillaman said. “That’s something I didn’t expect when I built the program’s curriculum. I didn’t appreciate how much kids just enjoy being a part of something, and that becomes pretty powerful.” 

The concept of teaching via group project is getting more popular in Albemarle, Giaramita said. As a result of the growing demand, there’s an increased effort to adapt similar learning mechanisms in regular classrooms across the county, and as early as elementary school, students are setting aside the 600-page textbooks to use technology and critical thinking to design projects and solve problems. Over the next 10 years, the school district estimates it will spend $70 million from the capital improvement program budget to incorporate this style of learning into nearly all of its 26 schools. It can be a challenge for long-time educators to adapt to a new style of teaching, he said, which is why professional development is a big piece of the initiative. Giaramita said he hopes to see teachers in every classroom embracing the concept of project-based learning.  

“They all, hopefully, will help meet some of the demand,” Giaramita said. “The biggest issue and challenge we have is keeping up with the demand, but I think that’s a good problem to have.”

Students in the academies still have to take Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, but Giaramita said the success of the project-based learning centered around critical thinking and team work makes standardized tests like SOLs less and less desirable. 

“We’ve had a trend of memorization, and recitation back of facts, but does that really measure how well we’re preparing kids to be successful in other venues?” Giaramita said. “We want to know not just what a child can learn, but how they can apply what they learn.” 

Giaramita said the students who have STEM-related careers in mind are the ones who tend to thrive in MESA, but it seems that kids with other interests also find value in the academy.

Former MESA student Sydney Giacalone was in the first class that went through the four-year program and says the academy was about more than just math and science. Now majoring in environmental science and anthropology with a minor in economics at Tufts University, Giacalone wouldn’t trade her academy experience for anything, even though she’s not pursuing a path of engineering or technology. 

“Students would arrive before school and stay after school just to continue working on their projects or hang out in the classroom,” she said, noting that she and many of her MESA peers were quiet and reserved in history and English classes but motivated and outgoing in the academy. “That type of connection with a class is something I had never seen before and have yet to see again. The participatory atmos-phere full of kids who were open about loving math and science brought us all out of our shells.” n

The academies are open to all county high school students, who still have to fulfill state-mandated graduation requirements. The curriculum is more focused, but because the academies are still part of the public schools, funding is lumped in with the overall school budget, and teachers’ salaries do not differ if they teach academy classes. Outside funding, however, like the $10,000 grant the Environmental Studies just received from Verizon, is essential in keeping the programs moving forward, said Phil Giaramita.
The Health & Medical Sciences Academy received nearly $75,000 in grants during its inaugural year from businesses and organizations with a vested interest in educating a new generation of students interested in the medical field.