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Okemos High School celebrates 'nerds'

At Okemos High School in Ingham County, it is easy to believe the geeks shall inherit the earth.

With a 4.0 grade average, senior Gavin McDowell already has completed advanced placement classes in physics, chemistry and calculus. He is a whiz on the quiz bowl and robotics team, listing his interests on the latter as computer programming, software design, physics, science fiction and “Britishisms used out of context.” He earned state honors as a viola player. He's researching astrophysics in collaboration with a professor at Michigan State University.

And he credits his school for making students like himself feel right at home.

“We have great teachers here,” McDowell, adding there is a “certain social prestige” granted high-achieving students.

McDowell has plenty of company at Okemos, which boasts a pile of trophies for robotics competitions and a 2013 rank by U.S. News as No. 8 in the nation in science, technology, engineering and math. It is one of two high schools in Michigan to reach the top 100 for STEM achievement, an evaluation that includes test data in advance placement classes like calculus, physics, computer science, chemistry and statistics.

“It's OK to be a geek or nerd here. It's celebrated and expected,” said Okemos Principal Christine Sermak.

The school's academic climate also profits from its proximity to Michigan State University, Sermak said. Members of the math and science faculty collaborate with MSU or the University of Michigan, seeking ways to further challenge students.

“They are constantly looking at our curriculum and making it much more rigorous. They really do push one another,” Sermak said of Okemos students and staff.

A statewide advocate for STEM excellence applauds what Okemos is doing.

But it will take more than one exceptional school to transform a statewide education system that falls short in math and science, in the view of Barbara Bolin, executive director of the Michigan STEM partnership. The Lansing-based organization is a statewide collaborative of educators, employers and legislators focused on the lack of STEM skills among students and job applicants.

“The situation in Michigan is dire,” Bolin said.

About one-fourth of Michigan high school students failed to graduate in 2012 within four years of entering ninth grade, according to national statistics. The dropout rate is about 11 percent.

Beyond that, Bolin said, “We've got employers who cannot find workers at the moment and by 2018 there will be an additional 274,000 STEM jobs that need to be filled.”

That figure comes from a 2010 report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which foresees a looming potential crisis for state manufacturers and high-tech industries.

A 2011 Harvard University study found that 6 percent of Michigan students in the class of 2011 were at the advanced level in math, a standard which ranked 33rd in the nation and was “significantly outperformed” by 28 other nations.

In Bolin's view, it is no coincidence that nations like Finland and South Korea rank at or near the top in global math and science scores. Their K-12 school systems embrace rigorous standards in these subjects, including comprehensive advanced mathematics, and expect student and teacher alike to meet them.

Bolin believes change here demands improvement on multiple fronts, for students as young as elementary school, including better training for math and science teachers and finding more creative ways to engage students of all grades.

A recent Bridge analysis found that teaching schools are more difficult to get into in other countries compared to the United States. That includes Canada, which ranks in the top 10 in the world in reading, math and science.

Bolin admires the FIRST Robotics competitions, which challenge high school students to apply engineering principles to a real-world task. It engages about 5,000 students, a tiny fraction of the 1.5 million K-12 students in Michigan.

“It's a wonderful mentoring program. But the issue with programs like that is that it's not reaching enough kids.”

She acknowledged that some elementary teachers might be intimidated from believing they can teach science or engineering fundamentals to young students.

“You can take some newspaper and popsicle sticks and distribute them to kids and say, 'Build a bridge' using newspaper, pop sickle sticks and glue. That's pre-engineering. When the bridge collapses, you can ask why did it collapse?”

At Stockbridge Community Schools in Ingham County, that approach to learning permeates the district. Using a converted garage as a classroom, the district teaches technical education with discarded equipment from districts that shut their program down. Elementary students build remote-controlled vehicles and model-sized boats they race in a water trough.

In March, students from the high school robotics team departed for the western Pacific to search for the remains of missing World War II soldiers using an underwater robotic device they built. The year before, the group used its robot to locate a downed World War II Corsair that students later learned had been ditched by its pilot. They also found out he was still alive and living in Florida.

Stockbridge High School Principal Richard Cook recalled that one of the students was tasked with figuring out where to anchor the search boat during the March trip. He solved that challenge with the aid of the Pythagorean theorem of geometry.

“It's really kind of influenced the way everyone thinks about education, the way we engage kids and what's possible,” Cook said of the Pacific excursions.

“It's really made people in the district rethink some big dreams for kids.”

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