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Editorial: Science, math academy good for West Virginia

Aug. 13, 2009 @ 11:31 PM

America loves the "Rocket Boys" story.

In that 1998 book and the subsequent movie "October Sky," author Homer Hickam tells his own story of a bright young man in a West Virginia coal mining town who follows his fascination with rockets to honors at a national science fair.

Hickam, who later became an aerospace engineer, dreamed a big dream, and in the book he credits a teacher who helped nurture his talent and ambition. Despite growing up in a small town and small state, she knew that when education and hard work meet imagination, even the sky is not the limit.

Marshall University believes there are more Homer Hickams out there, and a proposed new Applied Engineering Complex is an important step in building their futures on the university and high school level.

Last week, the Higher Education Policy Commission approved $25 million in funding toward the planning and construction of the complex, which would include Marshall's College of Information Technology and Engineering, the departments of Mathematics and Computational Sciences, a Modeling and Digital Imaging Resource Facility and engineering and bioengineering research laboratories.

The plan now goes to Gov. Joe Manchin for consideration.

That building also would be home to the planned West Virginia Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Academy, where top high school math and science students from around the state would come for a unique residential program.

It is the school for the next generation of Hickams and has the potential to change the way math and sciences are viewed and taught in West Virginia.

That is certainly what has happened for a number of states that have started similar schools, even those with histories of lower academic achievement.

The South Carolina Governor's School for Science & Mathematics, for example, was recently rated as the eighth best high school in the country. Founded in 1998 at Coker College in Hartsville, the school has created a track record of success that has worked for the students and the state.

Running counter to the fear that the more we educate our students, the faster they move away, 50 percent of the school's alumni still live in South Carolina, with 70 percent still in the fields of math and science. About 60 percent of 2009 graduates are going to college in state.

The school's executive director Kim Bowman, who happens to be a West Virginia native, reports that the school has found a formula that works. The school moved to its own campus in 2003, and the state hopes to expand enrollment from the current 128 students to more than 300 in coming years.

We think the S.T.E.M. academy planned at Marshall can accomplish the same goals, helping the state's brightest math and science students reach their full potential. That helps build achievement and research at our universities, and down the road, it will help attract more 21st century jobs to our state.

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