Local STEM program helps students get leg up in careers

ESSEX JUNCTION, Vt. (WCAX) What started as a science club with four students at Essex High School in 2013 has grown into a STEM program that now includes 135 students.

Newsweek recently named Essex High School as having the 50th best STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs in the country, but we wanted to know how those skills translate into careers.

Tech employers around the state often say there are plenty of jobs in STEM-related fields in Vermont, but not enough people here are qualified. Educational leaders say incorporating systems like Essex High School's could be the answer.

"The end goal for me is to be an astronaut or a terraformer and get that job at NASA or some other space company," said Brendyn Byrne, a senior at Essex High School.

It's a childhood dream, Byrne says, his high school is helping turn into a reality.

"It's kind of crazy to think I'm a high school student and I'm doing so much," said Byrne.

Like an internship at Archimedes Aerospace, a robotics class, a field study in Belize and a senior capstone project for which he's learning complex computer programming to create a ground-based cloud sensor.

Teachers at Essex say the opportunities available to students are unlike any others in Vermont, especially the internship class, which relies on community partners to give students hands-on experience.

"There's a lot of people mid-career who think, 'Oh, if I could only tell my 17-year-old self what I know now, how much better I could do things.' There's a lot of people who want to help like that," said Lea Ann Smith, the STEM Academy leader. "It's one thing to think you may want to be a mechanical engineer, but it's another thing to go out and spend 40 hours with engineers and actually see what that's like."

And Smith says those local internships, can turn into local careers.

"I think that if Vermont students are trained in the STEM fields, it could help bolster Vermont's economy through having more students for those kinds of jobs," she said.

Plus, college admissions counselors say the STEM Academy demonstrates a student's intellectual curiosity, love of learning and ability to thrive outside the classroom.

"Students who are taking advantage of opportunities like this clearly have a passion about their area of academic interest and that really comes through in the application," said Moses Murphy with University of Vermont admissions. "For students who are applying to majors in science, technology, engineering and math, having a program like this I think would be valued by any college or university."

It's a system Murphy encourages other Vermont high schools to emulate.

"This program and this high school has really helped me develop my college application. But beyond that, it's really just helped me grow my passion for science and kind of solidify that, yeah, this is what I want to do in life, this is what I want to try and accomplish," said Byrne.

STEM Academy leaders are looking for more community members to get involved in the internship program. If you're interested, send Smith an email at lsmith@ewsd.org.

Click here for more information about Essex High School's STEM Academy.