Raleigh charter school snags top NC honors for STEM education

Posted November 21, 2014 6:26 p.m. EST

— The State Board of Education recently recognized Exploris Charter Middle School in Raleigh as the top school in North Carolina for its instruction in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM education.

Teachers and students alike at Exploris Middle attribute the success of the program to the fact that no one there minds getting their hands dirty – students experience science and don't just read about it.

"It’s all interactive. We’re always doing projects," sixth-grader Marcos Morais said. "We’re not just sitting around reading textbooks and stuff. We’re doing projects; we’re evaluating other people, kind of quizzing them."

Students aren't lined up at computers in the school. Rather, they use technology to promote interactive learning.

"People typically define STEM as science, technology, engineering and math, but the rubric from (the state Department of Public Instruction) really defines STEM as strategies that engage minds. We really think Exploris follows that philosophy," said seventh-grade teacher Sonja McKay, who is in her 11th year at the school.

The learning isn't confined to the classroom. Students grow their own gardens, harvest the crops and donate them to charity, and they also worked with architects in downtown Raleigh to design and install a bus bench.

"We're doing integrated project work and getting kids out in the community and serving others and having a really active and involved way to learn that really sets us apart from doing just another math project," McKay said. "It’s definitely more about the creative and engaging experience that’s really based on relationships with students and being involved with the community."

Teachers say the approach is working, and state test scores bear that out. The school was named an Honor School of Excellence with high growth in 2011-12, the most recent year for which state data is available, in the ABCs of Public Education accountability system. Only 207 public schools statewide were in that group.

"It’s not a pass/fail moment. It’s a continuous cycle of growing and learning," McKay said. "Our goal is that we can share this with others and we can tip the needle just a bit and make some change in the state."

The State Board of Education also recognized 11 other schools statewide, including Brentwood Elementary School of Engineering in Raleigh and Wayne School of Engineering at Goldsboro High School, for their STEM programs.