SACO — Thornton Academy and the University of Maine announced Wednesday a first-in-the-state partnership that will allow some high school graduates to enter the university’s College of Engineering as sophomores.

The College of Engineering has endorsed Thornton Academy’s rigorous four-year curriculum for science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education, according to university officials.

Thornton graduates who complete certain courses will be admitted to the engineering program with sophomore standing, saving themselves a year of college tuition.

The partnership was announced Wednesday morning at Thornton Academy, a private school that serves local public high school students.

As state and school officials talked about the partnership, work crews were putting the final touches on a new STEM lab and new media center designed to foster hands-on and interactive learning.

Senate President Justin Alfond, a Democrat from Portland, said the way Thornton Academy incorporates STEM into its regular curriculum is “an ideal model” and will help the state produce workers with skills needed in the future.

“For Maine to be competitive, we need a highly skilled and well trained work force,” he said.

Dana Humphry, dean of the University of Maine College of Engineering, said the new partnership provides students an exciting opportunity to begin their engineering education while still in high school.

He said Maine’s rank as 47th in the country in the number of students per capita graduating with engineering degrees is “completely unacceptable.”

“We need to have more engineers like the ones who will come from this program,” he said.

The program will be open to all Thornton Academy students.

The school will offer three different course tracks — one geared toward students going on to a four-year degree program, one for students to earn a STEM endorsed diploma, and a third for students to earn an applied STEM diploma.

“Our intent is to provide skills and opportunities that allow students to live and work in Maine after graduation,” said Rene Menard, Thornton Academy headmaster.

Joe Moreshead, owner of PSMD Inc., a Biddeford high-precision contract manufacturing company, said companies like his need highly skilled workers like the ones the new partnership aims to produce.

He said he especially likes the idea of high school students being encouraged to become applied learners and learn in high school the skills they will need in the work force.

Standing in the nearly empty STEM lab, engineering teacher Jonathan Whitehead said he was amazed at the transformation of the space, which used to be a lecture hall.

The room now offers plenty of space for equipment students need for a STEM curriculum.

“It’s nice the school is making it a priority to have a dedicated space for this,” he said. “It’s exciting to see kids who didn’t see (an engineering career) as a possibility getting excited about this.”

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@mainetoday.com

Twitter: grahamgillian