This story was written for WRAL TechWire Innovator partner Gig East.

As a society, we are constantly thinking of and iterating on ways that we can properly educate children to prepare them for a life post-school in the American workforce. From national efforts like common core to more personalized programs found in Montessori schools, education is a constantly evolving topic.

The Wilson Academy of Applied Technology looks to utilize the burgeoning technology sector to educate the next generation of Wilsonians with a dedicated focus towards STEM fields.

The Wilson Academy is a unique program designed to immerse students in the world of STEM fields by offering them unparalleled access to dedicated community partners.

The curriculum is rigorous with the five-year program offering multiple educational tracks like engineering technology, biotechnology, information technology or a focus on an associate degree in science.

“They will take the traditional high school classes,” explained principal Krystal Cox. “The interesting part is what they’re exposed to with the community college, like taking certification exams that would prepare them for jobs at places like Greenlight. The whole premise of the school is a way to connect students to employers and reduce some of that training time.”

That means exposing students to as many opportunities as possible while bolstering their knowledge in the classroom.

Greenlight is Wilson’s community-owned fiber network service.

Every Friday there’s a reserved hour dedicated to workforce development or to facilitate speakers from many of WAAT’s partner industries. This exposure helps students decide on the path they want to take beyond the classroom.

One of the major benefits the school offers is the opportunity for job shadowing, which can lead to an internship.

“I’ve had some kids from last summer that were able to do job shadowing and they are really excited about the opportunities for the internship,” Cox said. “One of the great things about the partnership: the people in the building are passionate about exposing the students to the opportunities. The students rave about the experience.”

The hope is students who participate in the internship program will find full-time careers upon graduating in the City of Wilson.

Often, students graduate high school and go on to attend a four-year university and then never return to their hometowns, creating a kind of brain drain for cities and municipalities. By building a network of support and opening the door to new opportunities, the hope is students will realize how many options are available in their hometown.

“We’re hoping to find places for them, even if it’s not with Greenlight or the Hub, but somewhere in the city,” said Brittany Smith, board member and customer support manager with Greenlight. “Again, we are trying to keep them here. People go out of state and they never come back. Keeping them here; that’s definitely a project for us.”

Teachers have embraced the unique nature of the school as well, and are exposing students to many different ways of utilizing what they’ve learned.

For example, the school hosted a “Shark Tank,” event where board members served as the ‘sharks’ and gave feedback on projects and products. Students were asked to give TED-style talks during biology class, and even utilize actual data from the city to form writing proposals for public health projects.

The Academy is an opportunity for students to become fully immersed in all the opportunities Wilson offers. Its integrated curriculum has prospective students clamoring for one of the coveted slots.

“We start the application around the end of January each year,” Cox explained. “Every year, we’ve received more and more applications — this is our fourth cycle. Every year we’ve had to deny some students entrance; we only accept 50 students each year. At some point, we’re hoping we can expand that number and allow more students the opportunity.”

Application to WAAT is open to rising ninth graders attending any accredited Wilson County middle school. As long as school attendees reside in Wilson County, transportation is provided.

The Academy is constantly growing and evolving, providing a comprehensive education while preparing students for the real world beyond the school’s walls. With its first graduating class fast approaching, the faculty is innovating and bringing in new experiences.

“We are exposing them to all of the pathways,” Cox said. “Every semester they get a different experience and probably don’t even realize they’re learning.”

Article Source: WRAL TechWire 

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