School turns focus to science

A.L. Brown High School Principal Kevin Garay has been head honcho at the school for three years, and he had lesser roles for four years before that. All that time, he's been thinking.

Now, with the help of his faculty and staff, he's acting.

Although it's not the first school in the nation to create a wing dedicated to the learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, A.L. Brown now hosts one of only a handful of such facilities in the region.

Students studying in the new wing of the high school - known as the STEM Academy - get course-specific teaching with state-of-the-art technology.

From a chemical fume hood in April Baucom's science class and new equipment in Diane Crawford's classroom to a printer that makes plastic parts for making things in Jordan Baker's design class, students work hands-on to become "global thinkers," said Garay.

Garay said the wing allows teachers from different departments to work together to promote the same ideas.

"It's about exploratory learning and being able to know how a lab is done from a professional level," said Garay.

The center teaches students how to explore and think for themselves, he said.

Nineteen teachers teach 45 classes in the STEM Academy, but that number will rise soon.

The school plans to add an ecological science course, as well as bio-ethics and research, global studies and cell biology classes within the next year.

The wing encompasses four floors of advanced learning.

Only a handful of freshmen study in the classes offered in the wing, but at some point, Garay said, every student will attend at least one class there.

He said the center has two purposes. Not only will the classes promote the skills students are learning - from DNA research to design and building - but, Garay said, students will learn to be 21st-century learners.

"It's also for students to think outside Kannapolis," he said.

Two forces drove the creation of the STEM Academy. Besides the growth of biotechnology in the region, "I think we have a really talented group of teachers and leaders who had a vision for what a 21st century student looks like," Garay said.

Besides the classes taught in the STEM Academy, the wing also houses a school-based health center, which employs a school nurse, physician's assistant and social worker.

For Diane Crawford, a STEM Academy teacher, the building is perfect for her needs.

"I love this room," she said. "It gives me the space I need, and it makes it that much more enjoyable" for students to learn.

April Baucom is already thinking of ways to use her new equipment.

A biology teacher, she said the chemical fume hood might be more logical in a chemistry classroom, but "I'm glad we have it."

"I can already think of some things we can use it for in biology," she said. Other equipment, such as DNA testing hardware, will make it easier for students to learn as well. Previously she had to borrow DNA testing equipment.

A Cannon Foundation grant helped pay for the equipment, as did money from the Kannapolis Education Foundation. Crawford and Baucom, along with teachers in engineering, design, journalism and other classrooms, were given latitude to pick equipment that suited their teaching styles and needs.

The academy cost $8.1 million and has an environmentally friendly design.

The wing was added to the main building at A.L. Brown High School. Features include high-efficiency lighting, plumbing and heating and air conditioning systems, as well as occupancy sensors, timers and photocells.

The construction of the building also includes a variety of recycled materials and is on track to receive LEED environmental certification.

According to a news release from the Kannapolis City Schools, the disciplines taught in the STEM Academy include 3D engineering, microbiology, robotics, biologics, computer engineering, forensics, genetics, physics, project-based science and medicine.

Building on its international focus, classes also will be offered in international business, international studies, Latin, French and Spanish. A.L. Brown High also offers courses in Mandarin Chinese.