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When Angela Dawson had a student who was failing her introductory engineering class at Battery Creek High School she did what any teacher would do, she took him to an engineering competition where he helped design a remote access key for a car.
The student finished the class with an 87 percent.
"I knew he could do the work if he was left alone with it," Dawson said. "It would have been an 'A' if he had been like that all year."
It's that sort of turnaround Beaufort County School District officials are hoping to get from forthcoming STEM programs -- those that feature science, technology, engineering and math. At Battery Creek, which has had an engineering curriculum for two years, demand for those classes has skyrocketed, teachers and officials said.
Two years ago, the school had 13 students enroll in Introduction to Engineering, a ninth-grade course, Dawson said. Last year, 67 enrolled.
Next year, more than 150 students are expected to enroll.
"It's a program that gives kids a lot of hands-on opportunities," principal Ed Burnes said. "And technology seems to inspire students."
The program was designed by Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit corporation based in Clifton Park, N.Y. It designs curriculums for middle and high schools focused on math and engineering. At Battery Creek, students can take the ninth-grade class, principles of engineering in 10th grade, digital electronics in 11th grade and engineering design and development in 12th grade.
The district plans to set up STEM programs at Whale Branch and Lady's Island middle schools and St. Helena Elementary School as part of a restructuring designed to boost test scores and fill empty seats. Keeping in spirit with the district's STEM initiative, Battery Creek's classes also require mastery of general science and math, Dawson said. The ninth-grade class includes algebra and geometry. Subsequent courses require trigonometry, pre-calculus, calculus, chemistry, physics and robotics.
"There's lots of places that we can go with this," Dawson said.
Classes are mostly project-oriented and allow students to make mistakes and learn on their own with minimal input from teachers, she said.
"We are facilitators of the class, but we don't teach the class. ... They do everything," Dawson said. "The most I have ever talked in a day was half an hour."
Many of the students flooding Battery Creek's program have come from Robert Smalls and Whale Branch middle schools, which both have programs associated with Project Lead the Way. Robert Smalls Middle has had a program for two years, headed by Rick Cavalluzi, who calls himself "an old shop teacher." Using technology to augment instruction relies less on rote memorization and text reading commonly abhorred by the average student.
"My thing is the kids like hands-on," he said. When you have them do and complete their exercises, at that age level they're going to get a lot more out of it. They'll do the necessary reading and the necessary writing that they might not want to do right out of the gate. I don't come into too many problems with the writing."
Battery Creek's program also is designed to lead students toward a career, particularly for those who might not attend college. But those who do can also get college credit for completing the Project Lead the Way program.
"They'll have a leg up on students who may want to (major) in engineering in college," Burnes said.
In the case of Dawson's student, the program has helped him in his other classes, too.
"His math teacher was like, 'I don't know what you did, but he's a lot better student now,'" Dawson said. "I'm hoping to see improved test scores all the way around because of it."