Imagine arriving as a freshman to Louisiana State University to study engineering with 30 credit hours under your belt, confidence in your chosen major and hands-on experience with the equipment you’ll use in your first lab.
While that may have once seemed like a pipe dream, it’s now a possibility. The LSU College of Engineering, among other units across LSU’s campus, has partnered with Lee High School to create a curriculum that introduces high school students to STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—early in their studies and in turn, a direct pathway to success in college and beyond.
“Lee High is now state-of-the-art, and this partnership is really something that is novel,” said Frank Neubrander, the Demarcus D. Smith Alumni Professor in the LSU Department of Mathematics and the Director of the Gordon A. Cain Center for STEM Literacy, who helped orchestrate LSU’s involvement. “No question: It will be a high-performing school that will be a true alternative to Baton Rough Magnet High School, the LSU Lab School and the top private schools.”
The Shift to STEM
Lee High School’s transformation—physical and academic—has been years in the making.
In 2013, the school’s dilapidated facility on Lee Drive in Baton Rouge was torn down to make way for a new $54.7 million facility, and faculty and students were temporarily moved to the former Valley Park Junior High School, a few miles down the road.
At that same time, the school was relaunched as a magnet school, similar to Baton Rouge Magnet High, and Nan McCann, who had served as principal of Baton Rouge Magnet High was selected to also lead Lee.
As construction continued at Lee High School’s original campus, McCann reached out to community partners to build a curriculum as innovative as the new facility. And in May 2015, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board approved a $1.5 million, five-year contract with LSU’s Cain Center, which conducts educational outreach and research, to turn Lee High School—and eventually other schools in the parish—into an “early college” for the state’s Flagship university, offering dual-enrollment courses.
Together, McCann and Neubrander culled a diverse team of leaders from the East Baton Rouge Parish School System and LSU’s College of Science, College of Engineering and Center for Digital Media Arts and Entertainment, among others, to make the “early college” a reality.
The group crafted curricula for three main focus areas called “academies”—Engineering and Robotics, Digital and Media Arts, and Biomedical Sciences.
When enrolling at the magnet school, students select and enter one of these three tracts and take specialized courses on those topics throughout high school, including some courses that will earn them college credit. Should they change their minds about their chosen path, they can transfer to another academy, as certain course themes are present in each tract.
One of those common threads is “computational thinking and big data,” Neubrander said, and students in any academy will study computer science in its various forms.
“Regardless of the academy a student chooses, they will be introduced to programming and coding,” said Vanessa Begat, a research associate for the LSU College of Engineering and lead engineering teacher at Lee High who is responsible for training the instructors hired to teach engineering-themed courses. “That’s key to the future. If you don’t know how to program, you’re going to be limited in your college degree options, as well as job opportunities.”
Neubrander agreed: “If you go into engineering, or into digital media, or whatever you want to do 15 years from now, it’s clear it will be more and more important to work with programs and adjust programs. You’ll need to know how to talk to machines and analyze data.”
After pooling knowledge to map the pathways for the three academies, the team hired and trained educators, some of whom had previously worked at Lee High School and others who were hired specifically for the new campus. They also began testing new classroom technology, like digital textbooks, with incoming students.
Students will not have any physical textbooks, Begat said, and teachers will not be confined to a single classroom. Instead, students and teachers will work among classrooms, laboratories and “wow spaces”—multi-story atriums for large-scale projects—each day, and every student will have their own laptop or Chromebook.
“It’s really different than what you typically have in high school,” she said. “It gets students very excited.”
‘Alive and Well’
The first cohort of students—nearly 350 of whom are in the freshmen class—started at the new campus earlier this month.
Despite delays in the school calendar due to severe weather in the Baton Rouge area, Neubrander said, the semester is off to a strong start.
“I feel extremely good,” he said. “The curriculum and the projects we intended are alive and well. The academic core program is in good shape.”
But there’s still a long way to go, Begat added. For example, she said, there are ongoing fundraising efforts to purchase more machinery for the “wow spaces.”
“In the engineering academy, we had a vision for the equipment we wanted in the ‘wow spaces,’ and that included 3D printers, as well as full-size mills and lathes that were identical to the ones at LSU,” Begat said. “We wanted to make sure students at Lee were learning on certain machines, so it’s a seamless transition when they go to LSU.”
To date, she said, the 3D printers have been purchased, but the mills and lathes have not. So as an alternative, in this first year, the students will be using virtual equipment.
“The software allows students to do everything they would do on the real machine, but instead of physically cutting material, they’re doing it on a screen,” she explained. “But it’s more than a simulation; it actually shows you the inner-workings of the machine without the lid on.”
The Domino Effect
Despite not yet having every machine in place, Neubrander said, the school is truly a one-of-a-kind campus and a feature that’s been needed in Baton Rouge.
“It’s important for the community to have more than one high-performing public school in town,” he said.
It’s also important for the LSU College of Engineering, said Craig Harvey, the College’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, who has worked with a team of eight other engineering professors to prepare curricula for the engineering academy.
“So much of engineering is not well known to high school students,” he said. “They don’t understand what engineers do.”
As a result, Harvey said, many students come to college and spend their first year figuring out which engineering discipline best suits their interests and then fall behind. By teaching students about engineering early in their studies and exposing them to college-level coursework, they are prepared from the time they step on to LSU’s campus.
But it goes beyond a single college or discipline, Neubrander added. This partnership benefits LSU, as a whole, in many ways. Chief among them: recruiting, as, “The early college academy is in place to help the school systems train the perfect freshmen.”
“Sixty percent of LSU’s freshmen class comes from the Greater Baton Rouge area; 50 percent of them come from the same 30 or 40 Louisiana high schools,” Neubrander said. “The numbers are staggering. If LSU, as an institution, manages to work with those schools to send us better prepared kids, then we address key aspects of our retention and graduation issues overnight.”
The rest is a domino effect that produces a stronger Louisiana workforce, Harvey said.
“If you look at the projections for our workforce, and look at what jobs will be needed, you’ll see they are all in STEM,” he said. “We need to educate the next generation of STEM students. We need to educate them to be computer programmers, to be engineers, to go to Mars … and beyond. Lee High builds that foundation.”
For more information, contact Sydni Dunn, communications manager for the LSU College of Engineering, at 225-578-5706 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.