Did you know high school graduates have an employment rate nearly 20 percent higher than dropouts?1 To improve graduation rates, Wheeling High School developed a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program that Intel has sponsored since 2012. Because of this program, Wheeling is now one of America's best high schools.2 The key: community engagement and getting at-risk high schoolers out of the classroom and into real-world design challenges.
The Chicago suburb of Wheeling is surrounded by nearly 500 small- to mid-sized manufacturers, but few students from Wheeling High School (WHS) were entering jobs there after graduation. In fact, 50 percent of the school's 2,000 students were considered "at risk," and the school suffered from high truancy and dropout rates.
In January 2012, Principal Laz Lopez partnered with Intel to launch a program to better engage students through hands-on learning experiences. Through the program, students were challenged to design solutions to real-world engineering problems—the types of challenges that manufacturing companies work to solve every day. The idea was to connect students to engineering and manufacturing opportunities locally, nationally, and abroad, and pave the way toward highly skilled degrees and careers.
Since the program's launch, the graduation rate at WHS has improved to a staggering 90 percent—12 percent higher than the national average, according to the National Center for Education. The school has also seen an 80 percent growth in Advanced Placement course participation, and a 16 percent drop in Ds and Fs. The program also greatly influenced Illinois Governor Pat Quinn's statewide STEM initiative, fueled by $10.3 million in public-private funding.
In the spring of 2013, WHS hosted its second annual Intel-sponsored Midwest Research Competition, with 46 student teams participating from 13 Northwest Chicago suburban high schools. Students used advanced computing technology to solve engineering design challenges geared toward positive impact worldwide, including the design of prosthetic limbs for athletes and work safety helmets.
WHS sophomore Cole Dammeier's team took third place for its improved air-flow hospital operating room design. Dammeier sums up the appeal of learning through real-world challenges: "I liked the complexity of the problem and learning about what engineers do every day."
"Programs such as these help students do better in math and science classes as well as encourage them to take more rigorous coursework in preparation for careers in STEM." --Principal Lopez
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