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Science, math academy planned for Falmouth High School

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Science, math academy planned for Falmouth High School

FALMOUTH — Andrew DeWolf, a senior at Falmouth High School, is designing and building his own skis.

"I started with a ski press that was built a few years ago, but it needed a mold," he said.

So he built a mold out of two-by-fours. Now he's working on the ski design and hopes to be able to use his creations this winter. And he's doing this during class.

DeWolf is not alone in his engineering creativity. He's one of a group of about a dozen high school students taking an engineering and design class and participating in the Real World Design Challenge, a national program that partners with businesses.

In addition to individual projects like DeWolf's skis, the class is designing a light sport Cessna aircraft this year. They're using the software Cessna engineers use to design and model aircraft, and will use other software to test their design for fuel efficiency, stability and other factors.

The relatively unscripted class is taught by two science teachers, Andrew Njaa and John Kraljic, who recently proposed creating a special science-heavy diploma certification for students.

"The only way to learn to build and engineer is to, well, build and engineer," Njaa said in between helping students negotiate the new aircraft software and the complex physics equations that will keep the students' virtual planes in the air.

The high school already has a strong math and science program, but Njaa and Kraljic think they can do more. They want to offer students the option of a science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, stamp on their diplomas, which would indicate to colleges that these students are serious about science and math.

To participate, students would have to take three science or math electives and participate in three "extended learning opportunities," or math- or science-heavy extra-curricular activities in addition to four years of math, science, English and social studies. They would also be required to do internships at local science, technology or engineering firms.

"We're basically giving them credit for what they already do," Principal Gregg Palmer said.

Many of the same students in Njaa and Kraljic's high-level science classes are members of the robotics team, the Science Olympiad, the math team and other academic groups. Some even spend their summers working for architecture or engineering firms.

The school is also redesigning its science and math curriculum to encourage more integration of engineering and design into traditional classes, and potentially offer new classes, like computer programming, in the future. The plan is to create a STEM academy within the school that gives students the option of specializing without having to leave their school and friends for a charter or magnet school.

It's also likely the school will introduce a fine-arts-based academy and a humanities academy if the STEM academy is successful.

STEM is the latest school trend to go mainstream, with the state and national departments of education pushing schools to offer students more options and better training to prepare them for careers in technology and engineering.

"There are a lot of students with the potential to do it, but they need to see that they can," Njaa said.

Falmouth has 120 students in its first-year physics class, and 10 preparing to take the physics Advanced Placement exam this year.

Last year, the robotics finished second at the Zero Robotics Spheres Challenge at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, designing spherical robots that were launched into space and competed against other teams in a complicated zero-gravity robot version of capture the flag.

When talking to the students in the engineering and design class, it was clear this is more than classwork to them.

"It's a lot of fun," junior Shreyas Joshi said as he poured over a complex multi-variable equation.

"It's the real world, so it matters to what is actually happening," Joshi's senior classmate Kevin Conroy added.

There's very little in the form of lecturing in classes like this. Instead, students work on their own or in groups, sharing the workload as they would in a professional environment.

"When I go off into the world, I don't want to have a job that doesn't produce anything," said senior Sam Kane. "Making something real would be awesome."

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.