Salamanca schools launch distance learning STEM academy

Students at Salamanca High School will have the opportunity this fall to enroll in Project SAMI, a comprehensive distance-learning STEM program.

SALAMANCA — Officials at Salamanca High School are busy preparing for a new virtual STEM academy, anticipated to launch during the 2021-22 school year.

Beginning in the fall, students will have the opportunity to enroll in Project SAMI, a comprehensive distance-learning STEM program where students may study one of eight high-impact, college majors in drone inspections, engineering technology and cybersecurity.

“Corporate farming, utility work and advanced manufacturing make up some of the high-impact employers in our region,” said Aaron Straus, STEAM coordinator. “This highlights a significant skills gap that must be addressed to meet expected industry demand.”

The new distance learning initiative is designed to bridge the gap between K-12 education, college coursework and job readiness so students can be more prepared to enter jobs after high school.

Straus said the district has trade students that receive career and technical education training through BOCES, but on the other side of the spectrum, they have advanced STEM track students, who are taking AP and college-credit courses at Salamanca and anticipate moving on to a university program in engineering or pre-medical science.

“Somewhere, mixed or between are a group of students who may or may not go to college but need that extra-workforce training so that they may secure a gainful career upon exit from our high school,” he said.

Whether students choose to take advanced courses at their base school, attend BOCES or enroll in a college program, school officials said this program will advance the district’s strategic plan to prioritize PK-12 life skills, responsibility and critical thinking.

“For months, before the pandemic and throughout the pandemic, our instructional work continued,” said district superintendent Robert Breidenstein. “We are excited to share this project with the community and even more excited to begin the work in year two of our plan.”

Currently, the district uses a WozEd as the K-12 STEM pipeline curriculum, where students engage in hands-on activities during a STEM Specials class. Students take technology classes at the middle school level to learn more about different career paths, including engineering, coding, mobile development and drones.

Seventh and Eighth graders have the opportunity to visit scientific research facilities or manufacturing facilities, officials said. They can also attend STEM summer school camps to gather their career interests further. However, in the wake of the pandemic, where distance learning technology became at the forefront of educational discussion, faculty and staff looked for creative ways to continue STEM instruction through remote applications.

“At the time our schools began coping with the reality that remote education might be here to stay, the district decided to change its tactics on how and what students would learn. A portion of that plan involved heavy investment distance learning tools,” said Deputy Superintendent Dr. Mark Beehler said. “The beauty of the Project SAMI program model is that it can be implemented in a remote or conventional setting and that students have a hand in determining which competencies they want to tackle when, and how quickly they choose to do so.”

The SAMI curriculum is divided into several modules that students are expected to master. Each term, students are given a set of self-paced online lesson activities, which they can work through as fast as they want.

Once they complete one bunch, students will be rolled out into the next level of competencies. According to educational technologist Susan Schnaufer, what makes Project SAMI stand out from other remote learning solutions districts have used in the past, is its unique interface, tools and output focus.

“A learning management system is the virtual learning environment that can administer both time-bound courses as well as self-paced learning options such as competency-based Project SAMI,” said Schnaufer. “Our program documents and tracks learner progress and supports multiple methods of assessment. Additionally, it incorporates leveled, hands-on equipment shipped directly to the student’s home and unique industry-driven simulators, where students can practice the skill on a virtual equipment piece before using the real thing.”

The high school structured the program as an unscheduled elective class that students can work on 40 minutes a day during study hall, lunch or after school hours, hand-in-hand with their liberal art coursework. High School Principal Christopher Siebert said project faculty will serve as a “content resource” for questions and program guidance rather than as front-end instructional facilitators.

“We have specialized faculty there for academic and content support,” he offers. “If students are stuck on a question or project, they can reach out to their faculty member at any time and expect a response within 24 hours.”

During their senior year, students will have the opportunity to create an individual Project SAMI capstone project relevant to the area needs and their course of study and receive a voucher for taking one or more industry-standard tests that verify their occupational and skill capacity.

“The capstone experience allows seniors who exit the classroom to engage in real-world experience for an internship, a service-learning project and/or a research project,” said Dr. Graham Hayes, who worked in the geographic information systems industry and helped shape the Project SAMI program. “The capstone project requires students to devote 60-90 hours to solve a problem for a stakeholder group. Students will present these results to a business or local, county or state official/entity in regard to findings or recommendations.”

The program maintains about 20 new students per academic school year, but Straus said that number can increase.

“This is our pilot year, so we wanted to start the program off with conservative numbers,” he said. “We are working with our neighbors at the Seneca Nation of Indians and partner nonprofit organizations to locate and secure corporate sponsorship or grant funding that can directly increase our seat capacity. We hope to eventually open this program up to neighboring districts, through grant-underwriting and partnership efforts, tuition-free.”

The faculty and students are excited to finally get the program underway, officials said, as so many have become invested in it and want it to be perfect for students.

“The hands-on approach Salamanca takes to distance learning education could reimagine, (the right way) how we deliver virtual curriculum and content to students,” Straus said. “It would be a positive change… The SAMI Program is workforce-driven and immersive. Students can truly see how learning objectives are connected across the different curriculum.”

(Contact editor/reporter Kellen Quigley at kquigley@oleantimesherald.com.)

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