Astrophysics enthusiast starts initiative to strengthen BHHS STEM program

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Image courtesy of @VEXRobotics on Flickr

Alya Mehrtash staff writer

It’s hard to enter junior Nick Walker’s room without noticing the plethora of space memorabilia: models of rockets accompany the textbooks on his desk and stones placed carefully to resemble the solar system lay on a shelf on his wall. 

His passion for space and physics stemmed from his early childhood. At around age three, he was already drawing rockets and developing a passion for outer space. However, this wasn’t just a phase; he became more and more curious, and soon took that curiosity into the classroom when he entered middle school at El Rodeo.

“Once I got into middle school, taking these STEM classes, I realized there’s so much more to science than just one thing. Fields like astrophysics, they’re super broad. There’s so many different things to study,” Walker said. “This was extremely intriguing, because I didn’t know what I wanted to study, but I knew that there were so many possibilities.”

However once he entered high school, Walker realized that he didn’t have the same access to STEM classes that would allow him to further pursue his passion of astrophysics. Rather than shrug the issue off and roll with the cards he had been dealt, he decided to take action himself. With the help of Assistant Superintendent for Education Services Dustin Seemann, Walker is now working on an initiative to implement STEM classes from Project Lead the Way (PLTW) at the high school.

PLTW is a nonprofit organization that provides the district with the STEM curriculum currently utilized in the middle school. Their mission is simple: “Empower students to thrive in an evolving world.” The PLTW engineering branch, which pertains to grades nine through 12, offers nine different courses. According to the plan that Walker and Seemann have drawn up, students at BHHS will have two different class choices beginning in the 2019-2020 school year: Principles of Engineering and Aerospace Engineering. The curriculum will continue to grow, as the two hope to add more classes to the program as the years progress.

PLTW’s mission to cultivate a forward-thinking learning environment was not the only thing that motivated Walker to begin this project.

“It was a culmination of personal passion, but also the realization that other kids like me don’t really have this outlet to express their passion for physics, space, aerospace, astrophysics, [etc.]” he said. “Realizing that there isn’t this outlet, I knew that something had to be brought, because there is a large group of kids that would like something like this.”

Assistant Superintendent for Education Services Dustin Seemann not only acknowledged the strength of the district’s STEM program in TK through eighth grade, but also recognized the lack of such courses at the high school.

“We have multiple opportunities in the middle school, and what we haven’t offered is our ninth to 12th grade students the opportunity to explore engineering at the higher level,” he said. “A lot of our students are applying to engineering programs post graduating at Beverly and a lot of them don’t have those courses on their transcripts, so we’re doing a disservice to the students. That’s why I think it’s important to be able to offer these courses for an elective opportunity for students.”

Junior Bradley Moon, who hopes to take one of the PLTW classes next year, also sees multiple benefits in the introduction of the program at Beverly.

“I feel that implementing these sorts of higher-end science classes in our school could be an important step in enhancing the attraction to and quality of STEM at our school,” Moon said. “As it stands now, we don’t really have easily accessible opportunities to explore these areas of study on the pre-collegiate level.”

The program, in Walker’s eyes, could benefit any student, especially those who plan on pursuing STEM-related fields in college and the professional realm.

“I think the program would appeal to really anybody that’s interested in STEM, in engineering, as it’s a pretty prominent field in modern times, because I just think having that kind of outlet, having that creative class for kids to express their skills and their passion, in STEM, in engineering is going to be super beneficial,” he said.

Though Walker and Seemann hope to reach a wide range of students with the program, Walker is specifically eager to see how its implementation impacts current middle schoolers who hope to continue STEM in high school and possibly through college.

“At Beverly Vista Middle School, now there are PLTW STEM classes, and there’s nothing for them to follow through with at the high school,” Walker said. “Instituting this program would give them that secondary stage, you give them something to work for, so I’m excited to see how the transition helps the kids stay motivated.”

Eighth grader Leila Kashani is one of those students that hopes to continue her passion for STEM when she reaches high school. Like Walker, Kashani has been interested in STEM, specifically astrophysics, since a young age. She believes that the new PLTW courses can not only help students like her, with an already established passion for STEM, but also others who may not necessarily be aware of their interests yet.

“I think that these new classes will introduce students to things they never knew they had a passion for. The classes allow continuation, an extremely important thing for young students,” she said. “I think that students will fall out of their passion for STEM with lack of continuation. With continuation, I feel as if students that were not interested in STEM before have an opportunity to explore, and students that are interested have the ability to keep learning.”

Walker has spent a great deal of his time working on this project along with Seemann, who has grown even more passionate for the cause as a result of Walker’s efforts and support for the program.

“Nick’s been an instrumental part in this process. He actually came and advocated for the program as well. To me this is, because it’s my world, very exciting. He’s very engaged in the process,” he said. “When students come and advocate, it makes me even more passionate about making sure that we launch the project, because I know that there is a ground swell. The students are in the weeds, and so they can get their friends motivated and going, versus if I’m standing up in front of [them] saying ‘This is really great,’ some of [them] might listen, some of [them] might not.”

The time and effort that Walker has put into the process of implementing PLTW has not gone unnoticed by his peers either. For Moon, Walker’s “active role” has served as an “inspiration to take similar sorts of actions” in fields that he is passionate about.

All the work, time, and effort that Walker and Seemann have put into the project is working towards one overarching goal, which, in their eyes, can bring immense benefits for students.

“Ultimately the goal is to make this a sound program to provide the foundations of pretty much all things STEM,” Walker said. “I think bringing PLTW, especially for me, will give me and all the other students that decided to participate in it a huge head start in their career. It gives them the opportunity to understand what they can really do just in high school.”

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