STEM Academy continues to attract students in its eighth year

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 14, 2016

By Rebecca Rider

SALISBURY — It may be summer, but in an upper floor classroom at Salisbury High School, rising sixth-graders work constructing towers out of paper Dixie cups and cardboard.

The goal, said Renick Sides, a soon-to-be student at China Grove Elementary, is to design something that can stand even in the strongest storm.

“So we’re making these towers to see if the wind can knock them over,” he said.

Sides and other rising sixth graders are studying meteorology at Salisbury High School’s “STEM Academy,” – a week-long camp held for four weeks over the summer that’s open to rising sixth through ninth graders. Meteorology is one of the classes offered to rising sixth graders. Over the course of the week, students built everything from towers to weather vanes to underscore concepts.

“We build things based on what we’ve learned, and it’s really fun,” student Courtney Williams said.

Academy Director Brian Whitson said the academy launched eight years ago when community members worried that the U.S. was falling behind globally in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Whitson said that, based on international measurements, American test scores just don’t measure up internationally.

“The U.S. is at best in the middle of the pack,” he said.

Then, while the Salisbury community was searching for a solution, the mills began closing, and training in STEM categories became imperative.

“This was the response that was come up with,” Whitson said.

For $25 a week — though waivers and reductions are available — any child who lives in Rowan County can attend the STEM Academy and learn advanced topics such as biochemistry, forensics and virtual reality coupled with hands-on experience that helps set the academy apart. These are things that students wouldn’t learn in a typical classroom, Whitson said.

“A lot of our K-8 schools just don’t have the facilities or resources,” he said.

But STEM Academy students can use Salisbury High’s labs to build hovercraft or test the effectiveness of antacids like Alka-Seltzer.

The academy attracts students from every middle school in the county, Whitson said, as well as home-school students and students from private schools like Salisbury Academy. Classes cap off at 16, and while anyone can be accepted, Whitson said program leaders do like to see students who are serious about school and who are interested and eager.

“We expect the kids to come here and be ready to learn,” he said.

This year, Whitson said, about 115 students will attend over the four-weeks of the academy. Students take two classes a day, but the topics vary by week. Weeks one and four share the same curriculum, while topics branch out during the middle of the camp. Depending on grade level, students can study environmental science, chemistry, physics, Adobe programs such as Photoshop, medical science or anatomy.

“So we try to get them a little bit into lots of different areas,” Whitson said.

Tom Bristol, a rising eighth grader at Salisbury Academy said he’s been attending the camp for three years. This year, he’s working in the program’s physics lab to create a hovercraft. Using a small battery and some electric cables, he tests the effectiveness of a propeller. Bristol said the hands on approach and the alternation between learning computer programs and more physical labs is what keeps him coming back.

“It’s just a lot of fun to do,” he said.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.