Fayette County school district's new STEAM Academy to open in the fall

jwarren@herald-leader.comJune 30, 2013 

Fayette County Public Schools and the University of Kentucky hope to move secondary education forward in Lexington by building up a full head of STEAM.

The new STEAM Academy — a partnership of the school district and UK — will get on track when the new school year starts in August, stressing science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

The academy will operate in the old Johnson Elementary School for 2013-14. Next year, STEAM will move to a permanent location in the 40,000-square-foot former Winn-Dixie grocery store near South Broadway and Virginia Avenue, within walking distance of UK.

The academy will function like a high school, with 150 freshmen this year, selected by lottery from around Fayette County. Another 150 students will come on board annually, pushing enrollment to 600 in grades 9 through 12 by 2016.

STEAM proclaims itself as "Kentucky's most innovative school," according to a sign at Johnson School, and Fayette officials say that's not an empty promise.

STEAM students, for example, will have a say in developing their curriculum and ultimately will help design the new school building. Teachers will teach in new, more innovative ways. The school year will feature a series of nine-week "design challenges," in which students will learn science, engineering, arts and math "hands on" to tackle real-world problems.

In addition to regular high school classes, STEAM students will take college courses through UK. The students will be able to complete up to 45 hours of college credit by the time they graduate from high school.

One hint of just how different STEAM might be is the two-week preparatory math camp that some of the incoming freshmen attended last month at Johnson. It was taught by R. Michael Sheetz, a staffer from UK's Center for Computational Sciences, who has a PhD in biochemistry, a master's in applied physics, and a master's in economics and econometrics. It's not the kind of academic background ninth-graders typically get.

In addition to introducing quadratic equations, imaginary terms and complex conjugates, Sheetz assured the students that "math isn't difficult."

"The only thing that makes math difficult is the way it's always been taught," he said during a camp session. "But by the time you graduate from the STEAM Academy, you're going to be experts in algebra."

The academy is the latest in a series of specialized programs at Fayette County Public Schools. Each program — the Stables, Opportunity Middle College, Carter G. Woodson Academy — targeted the needs of particular groups of students.

STEAM grew from several years of talks about how to better prepare students for successful careers in a world increasingly dependent on technology, Fayette Superintendent Tom Shelton said. He cited a conversation with entrepreneur and former state commerce secretary Jim Host.

"The year I came here, he told me he'd like to see the school system and UK collaborate to help develop more jobs and career opportunities in fields like math, science and engineering," Shelton said. "We began thinking about how we might do that."

In search of ideas, district officials visited several STEM-based schools (science, technology, engineering, math), notably Metro High School in Columbus, Ohio. Serious planning for a similar school here got moving last year, and the proposed school was included in Fayette County's new facilities plan.

The district added "Arts" to STEM, on the theory that arts are an essential component of science and technology, and came up with "STEAM."

More than 400 families applied to get their children into the school, with 150 students ultimately selected for the first class by lottery. Most came from Fayette middle schools; others were home-schooled.

Shelton said the student body will reflect the district's race, gender and socioeconomic profile. About half the students will qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Getting the school up and running will cost about $1.6 million, much of which will be covered by government grants, according to the school system.

Jack Hayes, the district's achievement support director, said some aspects of the STEAM program are so new that district officials are fleshing out the details.

"Everything about the school is going to be different from the start, the way the curriculum is organized, how the kids will learn," Hayes said. "Normally, curriculum is where you start. This will kind of be the reverse of that. We'll start with the design challenges, then figure out how curriculum fits into that."

Design challenges typically are multiweek projects in which students work individually and in teams to research real-world problems and design solutions using various academic disciplines they've learned in class.

One design challenge at STEAM will require students to research and identify a significant community problem, then design a green energy solution. In another, they'll study the math and science of music by creating their own musical instruments, writing original musical compositions and performing them in public. Next spring, they'll partner with students from other countries to plan and carry out an agricultural experiment.

Shelton said schools officials don't expect every STEAM student to take on a technical career.

"It's not a one-size-fits-all model; each student can pursue his or her own passion or interest," he said. "We're focusing on individual students, not creating a program where all students experience the same thing."

J.T. Hickey, 14, who finished eighth grade at Edythe J. Hayes Middle School in May, loves math but also enjoys science and history. He's excited about attending STEAM.

"We heard that the opportunities for college credit here would be exponentially greater than if we went to Henry Clay High School," J.T. said. "We'll be taught by college professors. You get double the amount of college credit and you get much greater opportunities."

Tina Stevenson, formerly principal of Winburn Middle School, is the STEAM Academy's director.

"We're starting something new," she said. "Innovation is the world our kids live in today. The world we adults lived in is not the world they live in, and we have to embrace that."

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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