North Augusta High STEM students learn engineers’ roots

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When asked about the coolest part of his job, an engineer at the first STEM Mentoring Exchange on Wednesday gave North Augusta High students an even cooler answer.

“I’ve touched nuclear fuel with my bare hands,” he said.

In partnership with the National Math + Science Initiative (NMSI), scientists and engineers from AECOM, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions and Savannah River Remediation met with North Augusta juniors and seniors taking Advanced Placement classes in math and science.

The purpose of the informal sessions was to connect students’ classroom studies with careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and to introduce them to industry professionals working in STEM fields in the local area and hear them talk firsthand about their jobs.

“Any time you can make learning relevant for kids, you win,” Aiken County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Sean Alford said. “When you look at their eyes and you look at them talk to these engineers, they can see themselves in these roles. I think that’s going to help them connect with what we do here on a daily basis and make their learning more personal and relevant. Any time you can do that, the community benefits.”

In addition to telling cool stories, the professionals talked about their personal and educational backgrounds and what led them to STEM careers. They also answered questions and shared advice.

Christie Sudduth, a senior engineer with Savannah River Remediation, told the students to look for opportunities beyond academics and the classroom.

“Once you get to college, the best thing you can do for yourself: co-ops, internships. Go out and experience different things,” she said. “Companies look for experience. Grades are absolutely important, but your biggest selling points are going to be the experiences that you gain in the four years that you’re at college.”

Through financial investments from AECOM and SRNS, Aiken County joined a network of more than 1,000 schools in 34 states nationwide that have adopted NMSI’s College Readiness Program.

The program has increased the number of students succeeding in rigorous AP coursework in math, science and English across the country.

And at North Augusta High, too, Paige Day, an assistant principal and the school’s NMSI coordinator, said.

Day said the number of students taking AP classes almost doubled this year and the number of students who have signed up for AP courses next year has doubled almost again.

This year, the school has 650 total enrollments in AP social studies, English, math and science.

“We are looking at almost 1,000 enrollments in AP for the 2017-18 school year,” Day said. “We’re really excited.”

As part of its new thematic high school program, the district announced last May that North Augusta and South Aiken high schools would become Advanced Placement Academies.

The academies focus on expanding advanced, college-level coursework to more students and increasing qualifying scores for attaining college credit in partnership with NMSI, the Department of Defense and the AECOM engineering firm.

“The whole purpose of the program is to remove any barrier that might be there for students against taking this rigorous coursework if they’re interested and have the ability,” Day said. “The other goal is to give the support needed to students and teachers to have students qualify on their course exams and get college credit.”

Students who pass the exams can earn college hours, reducing the academic and financial burden of college.

David Smith, a junior, took one AP class last year and is taking three this year: U.S. history, language and physics.

He said he’s undecided whether he will pursue a STEM major or major in finance or international business at USC Columbia. Whichever route he takes, Smith said the STEM Mentoring Exchange and taking AP classes have been valuable experiences.

“I learned today that engineering is a very good career, and it’s easy to get a job coming out of college,” he said. “AP classes involve a little more studying, but they challenge me and prepare me for what college will be like.”

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