Engineering a bright future the goal at Laing

Laing Middle School sixth-graders Kyrin Smalls (from left), Jamar Montgomery, Kadin Smalls and Javin Robinson build a Roman-style arch during history class. The class incorporates engineering and how people in the past built things.

MOUNT PLEASANT — Armed with soldering guns, circuit boards and a working knowledge of 3-D printing, four girls at Laing Middle School of Science and Technology dart around campus for one period every day, helping to complete the school’s mission of integrating science, technology, engineering and math — STEM, in education parlance — in every class and discipline.

“It’s really fun. It’s better than a core class,” said seventh-grader Morgan Moriarty, one of the four industrious STEM assistants. “You get to get up and do stuff, not just listen.”

The Future of Education Technology Conference last month recognized Laing as one of the top three STEM-focused middle schools in the nation for the second year running, and administrators at Laing credit their success to a whole-school approach to tech-infused education.

In a seventh-grade social studies project on World War II history, students have built a raised topographic map of the world using a computer-programmable router and are in the process of wiring a speaker to recite historical notes from various locations at the press of a button. In a pre-engineering class, students are learning to create 3-D models with computer-aided design software — a skill that some of their parents didn’t learn until college.

In Carolyn Hennessy’s art class, students build kinetic sculptures from recycled electronics and light up graphite drawings of a cityscape with hand-wired LEDs. A 38-year veteran educator, Hennessy said the opportunity to try a new approach at Laing pulled her out of retirement.

“It gave me new life,” said Hennessy, poring over a pile of interactive art projects with a proud grin. “I’m doing new projects and new things that spark my mind rather than the same projects I’d been doing for years.”

By incorporating hands-on engineering practices in every class, Laing’s faculty are trying to avoid the potential pitfalls of STEM education, which can place tech education in an isolated “silo” within the school or denigrate the work of liberal arts teachers.

Bill Havice, a Clemson education professor who has been studying the effectiveness of STEM schools since their inception in the early 1990s, said Laing is a prime example of what he calls “integrative STEM education.”

“It’s not a new curriculum; it’s a new way of teaching,” Havice said. “They’re including everyone. It’s not building a dynasty in math or science. They’re using it to strengthen the development of all knowledge.”

A historic East Cooper school that recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, Laing moved into a new building in August with architecture custom-built around its unique mission. The halls include alcoves with standing desks for collaboration, the classrooms feature group tables and movable furniture, and an engineering classroom has high-vaulted ceilings with electrical outlets draped over the workstations.

“Everything is flexible because we want things to evolve,” said Principal James Whitehair.

At the center of it all sits the fabrication lab, or “fab lab,” decked out with two 3-D printers, a laser cutter and a ShopBot router, plus a bevy of specialized tools.

The streamlined new building cost $39 million, part of the Charleston County School District’s $400 million capital building program. The cutting-edge equipment in the fab lab didn’t come cheap either — the laser cutter alone cost $16,000 — so the school depended on parent philanthropy, grants and a donation from BP to outfit the room.

Laing also has at least one hire that sets it apart from the rest of the district: STEM Coach Melvin Goodwin, a Ph.D. who previously conducted field research in the Caribbean for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. When Goodwin made the leap into education, he said he wanted to show the relevance of STEM in every discipline. In a recent English class project, for example, students conducted hands-on experiments on the efficiency of various energy sources before writing argumentative essays on the future of alternative energy.

“We had this vision of it really touching every class,” Goodwin said. “We talk a lot about students owning their learning, students teaching us: ‘How would you learn this best?’”

Goodwin’s vision may be a secret to Laing’s success. Students there outperformed the district and state last year on every section of the ACT Aspire, including Reading and Writing. Laing has relatively low enrollment of minority and low-income students, who tend to lag in test scores, but even among schools with similar student populations, Laing stands head and shoulders above its peers in the state, according to state report cards.

Part of Laing’s mission is to teach students the skills needed for high-tech manufacturing jobs, especially as big players such as Boeing and Volvo expand in the area. Many of the students have developed a passion for engineering, including the highly competitive robotics team that swept the Charleston Challenge SeaPerch Competition in 2014 with its remotely operated underwater vehicle.

But Whitehair said the lessons the students learn can apply to any career.

“What we’re trying to do is present problems to the kids and allow them to work together to figure it out,” Whitehair said. “That teaches those skills that are needed when they get older. It’s more than just content, but it’s the soft skills that are needed.”

For sixth-grader Anna Brennan, Laing was a radical change from elementary school. She recently helped build a classroom decibel meter from scratch in the fab lab, programming an Arduino microcontroller and digital readout to display students’ loudness on a scale of 0 to 4. Before this school year, she had never laid hands on a soldering iron, let alone built something so complex with her classmates.

“I’d never even heard of it before,” she said. “It’s been a great experience.”

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.