Sandia LabNews

High Tech

Charter school on Sandia’s doorstep gives kids hands-on exposure to science

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A math project at the tech high school included cake baking. The approach to education is interdisciplinary, pulling subjects like algebra, physics, and language arts into a single, hands-on assignment.

Katie Wieck hated math in elementary school. Middle school was another story. “I really got good at it and started to like math,” she says. When it came time for high school, Katie heard about a special technology-focused charter school forming in the Sandia Science & Technology Park (SS&TP) and gave it a shot.

She hasn’t regretted the decision. “I wanted something different, and this has been really challenging and fun,” she says. “I’m learning math and science in new ways.”

The Technology Leadership High School, a public charter located in the Sandia tech park, opened in August with 90 students in grade 9. The school will add a grade level each year until it reaches 12th grade.

“We love having high school students engage in our tech park programs,” says Jackie Kerby Moore, manager of Technology & Economic Development Dept. 1933 and executive director of the SS&TP. “These students have already participated in several activities including Entrepreneur Exploration Roundtables and Manufacturing Day tours.”

The school was a year and a half in the planning and is one of three in the Leadership Network, along with Health Leadership and Architecture, Construction and Engineering, or ACE.

Velina Chavez, director of community engagement at Technology Leadership High, says the network shares a philosophy and method of teaching. “We take a different approach to education than traditional schools,” Chavez says. “We offer hands-on, project-based learning that is interdisciplinary.”

Students get a problem to solve at the beginning of each trimester and have 12 weeks to investigate and explore it. A final presentation reveals a solution and demonstrates the student’s knowledge. The school’s first trimester project was learning algebra through computer coding, with the final assignment being development of a video game.

Katie’s team of four students came up with Pac Man’s Revenge. “Making the video game has been my favorite thing so far,” she says. “We’re doing algebra in a cool way.”

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Students at Technology Leadership High work on laptop computers donated by Sandia. “We’ve had a successful launch and solid start,” says Velina Chavez, the school’s director of community engagement. “It has to do with the students who are here. They are dedicated. We know we’re doing good when they show up every day and work hard.” The school is one of three in the Leadership Network, along with Health Leadership and Architecture, Construction and Engineering, or ACE.

Chavez says project-based learning gives students the “why” piece of subjects like algebra and physics. “It provides a real-world connection to the concepts they are learning,” she says. “It shows the relevance to their lives.”

Chavez says the school was strategically placed in the tech park to be close to Sandia and to technology-based businesses. Sandia donated refurbished laptop computers and other equipment, and Laboratories scientists are working with teachers on curriculum. “People from the Labs will come to the classrooms and partner with us,” Chavez says. “We’ll also collaborate with businesses in the park. The students have walking access to companies that are doing scientific work.”

The students recently visited TEAM Technologies, Air Products & Chemicals, and the QC Group on Manufacturing Day sponsored by the New Mexico Manufacturing Extension Partnership in conjunction with the SS&TP program office.

Chavez says the students will intern at park companies their junior and senior years. “We’re exposing our students to experiences they wouldn’t get in traditional schools,” she says. “They see different career options up close.”

Every Thursday the students go to places like the La Luz Early Childhood Center, New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired — also in the Sandia tech park — Manzano Mesa Elementary, and the Manzano Mesa Multigenerational Center to provide help and support. Chavez says the goal is to teach the kids to interact in the community and in professional settings. “Students can develop the soft skills they need to be successful going into the workforce,” she says.

The school has drawn most of its students from the Southeast Heights and International District. “Our focus is to engage students who have been disengaged, students who might fall through the cracks at traditional schools,” Chavez says. “We know students can succeed, and it’s great to see that happen.”

As the school moves into its second year next fall, Katie says she’ll be there. “I enjoy the activities and helping people in the community,” she says. “There is so much I want to explore.”