By Susan Riddell

Craig Scharf talks with his STEM Academy students Josh Lindsey and Vaughn Reed about entering the Team America Rocketry Challenge at Muhlenberg County High School. Photo by Amy Wallot, Jan. 6, 2012

Craig Scharf talks with his STEM Academy students Josh Lindsey and Vaughn Reed about entering the Team America Rocketry Challenge at Muhlenberg County High School. Photo by Amy Wallot, Jan. 6, 2012

Craig Scharf, who taught college classes prior to coming to Muhlenberg County High School, could always spot the students who were prepared for his classes from the ones who weren’t.

“I could tell the kids who had a good background in research and critical thinking from the ones who hadn’t,” said Scharf, who has been at the recently consolidated Muhlenberg County High for 10 years. “I come from a research background, and I honestly believe students who think for themselves and can master independent research will be best prepared for college.”

With that in mind, Scharf and his colleagues at Muhlenberg County High launched an effort this school year that aims to help students better prepare for college by taking a rigorous series of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classes.

The STEM Academy, as it is called, is an outgrowth of a Project Lead the Way (PLTW) biomedical science program the school started in 2009. The biomedical science program was such a hit with students that administrators decided to form an entire STEM Academy.

“The academy was brought on board to increase the rigor of our course offerings, provide in-depth training for our instructors and put real-world applications and technology in the hands of our students,” said Principal Matt Perkins.

The academy also aligns with the college- and career-readiness goals set forth in Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) and Gov. Steve Beshear’s Transforming Education in Kentucky (TEK) task force, which call on schools to provide students with the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed in postsecondary education and the workplace.  

More than 45 students applied to be in the STEM Academy this school year.

“Interest continues to grow as we are sending additional teachers for training this summer to meet the demand of the students,” Perkins said.

The school held a kickoff early in the school year, where they presented each student in the academy with a lab coat. All the academy students committed at the kickoff to enroll in a series of rigorous courses during all four years of the program.

“The need for it at the time was a desire to really challenge our top-level students,” Scharf said. “They were taking AP courses, but we wanted to departmentalize that and in a sense make it into a mini-graduate program. We felt this would challenge them even further and give them more preparation for college.”

As high school freshmen, students must take either honors geometry or Algebra I; honors Chemistry I or honors general science; plus PLTW electives. Sophomores and juniors continue this pattern, advancing each year in honors courses.

Seniors must take calculus, any college-prep science course and PLTW electives.

Starting next year, either Scharf or teacher Allen Hunley will serve as an advisor to juniors in the program. These students will be mentored by their advisor until they graduate. Academy students also must develop a research project during their senior year.

“They have to do their own independent research, and they have to design and present the research to adults and contemporaries. They have to write publishable, technical papers as part of the project,” Scharf said. “In some cases, the projects are still in development. Seniors will work on them all year long.”

One of the students in the program, for example, is researching how music can affect the physiological and behavioral responses in terms of lowering blood pressure and heart rate.

“That research is showing some very interesting things,” Scharf said.

Scharf said the research project forces students to think independently and draw their own conclusions as to why things are the way they are.

“A lot of kids know stuff, but they don’t know the relevance of it,” he said. “This program allows them to take some of that knowledge in all of their other classes and be able to put it into practice. They are designing their research and their project and carrying them out.”

Students in the program also benefit from monthly guest speakers, including a recent visit from a cytopathologist.

“Most kids think you become a doctor, a nurse or a radiologist,” Scharf said. “A lot of them have no idea what a cytopathologist does, but we want to show the students all the possibilities out there for them in the STEM fields.”

While the first year of the STEM Academy is going well at Muhlenberg High, Scharf said, there will likely be modifications in the coming years.

“We just finished trying to scope out a way to decide where this is going,” he said. “We want to involve more teachers in the STEM program. I’ve written a lot of technical papers, but I’m a science guy. I’m teaching them how to write technical papers and also statistics. We would like for those components to be taken over by English and mathematics teachers eventually.”

The school also wants to reach down into the middle school and have those students thinking about opportunities.

“We want the middle school kids to interact with the high schools kids and get a feel for what’s going on,” Scharf said.

Scharf said the most enjoyable part of the STEM academy for him is seeing students develop a higher order of thinking and problem solving.

“They have to do a lot of practical problem solving, and that is often missing in academics,” he said. “For me, watching that whole process is the fun part.”

The academy also is helping juniors and seniors figure out where they want to go to school and what they want to study.

“Everyone one of them has some aspect of STEM they are interested in whether it’s biomedical or something else,” Scharf added. “As a nation, I think we fall a little short in helping students out in that regard.”

Craig Scharf,, (270) 338-0040