March 29, 2013

Maine Voices: Baxter Academy will address what public high schools can't

The charter school will offer a focused STEM education that Maine students want and need.

By Jonathan Amory

PORTLAND - I am working hard evenings and weekends, after teaching seven different engineering courses at Freeport High School, to make Baxter Academy a reality.

Why? Because students in southern Maine need a school where they can take rigorous, concentrated courses in science, technology, engineering and math -- STEM subjects.

They need to work on real-world, open-ended problems and projects.

They need to learn the design process and project management, how to work together in teams, how to do error analysis, accept and learn from failure.

They need to be taught the skills they will need to survive and succeed in today's tough job market and excel in challenging, highly competitive college courses.

How do I know this? I am a mechanical engineer with a certificate in boat design from The Landing School in Kennebunk and a master's degree from Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

I worked for five years as an advanced robotics engineer at Boston Dynamics, an MIT spinoff funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, that designs sophisticated bio-inspired robots such as Big Dog for the military.

Although I thrived at Boston Dynamics, I came to realize that the skills that made me a successful engineer were not taught in high school. I came back to Maine four years ago because I wanted to help Maine high school students learn those skills.

I was born in Maine, Maine is in my blood and teaching is my vocation. I enjoy it, and I think I'm good at it. Read the Press Herald's article on my Freeport High students' wind tunnel project ("Wait'll you get wind of this ...," June 10, 2011) and decide for yourself. I'm just one of many incredible innovators who are part of Baxter.

So why Baxter?

Freeport High is a wonderful school, and I've enjoyed teaching there. I found, however, that the current standard public school model lacks the needed flexibility to provide the sophisticated STEM education many of our students want and need.

It just isn't possible in a traditional high school to develop a laddered technical curriculum that builds essential skills sequentially or to integrate large-scale and long-term technical projects into the curriculum. Baxter will have the flexibility that is critical for a successful STEM program.

Today's engineers and scientists must be experts in their fields. They must also be able to program in multiple languages, use computer tools such as parametric CAD and modeling programs, and constantly learn new skills and adapt to new technology. And on top of all this, they need to manage projects and budgets, communicate effectively in writing and in presentations, and collaborate.

Again, that's where Baxter comes in.

The school's curriculum will be built around the skills needed for success in STEM careers. The school will provide a sequential, focused and project-based curriculum, with blocks of time for student projects and collaboration with local schools, businesses and research institutions.

In addition to traditional science and math courses, Baxter will offer students the opportunity to take courses in programming languages such as Java, Python and C++, as well as parametric CAD, PiXAR's rendering and animation CAD and applied math.

Baxter's students will have the opportunity to learn through real-world projects the critical skills needed to become good scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

Falmouth, Bangor and Skowhegan have recognized the need for a focused STEM curriculum and are creating their own STEM academies. The state has created the Maine School of Science and Math in Limestone.

The four Portland high schools' website, however, does not list a single course dedicated to programming or parametric CAD. Portland Arts & Technology High School offers one class on robotic and precision machining, but one course cannot cover the range of robotics, programming and CAD.

There is an excellent technology program in the eighth grade at King Middle School, but it has no counterpart in any of the city's high schools.

I admire local officials' efforts to ensure all our schools are adequately funded. I believe Baxter Academy can play a critical role in our shared success.

Let's partner, share resources, and collaborate in order to provide the best possible education for Maine kids. Students have different learning styles and needs, so let's build on our different curricula and strengths.

If we work together, not in conflict, we can bring innovative education to Maine's students and build the tech-savvy work force for the region. That's a future we can all be proud of.

Jonathan Amory of Portland is a Freeport High School science, technology, engineering and math teacher.

 

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