ORIGINALLY POSTED 10/01/2017 |
FROM THE FALL 2017 ISSUE
Open-concept computer labs surrounded by transparent walls, symposia with tech savants held on an oversize staircase, and big projects assisted by the likes of local tech firms—it all sounds more like the setting for an episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley than the backdrop for a San Antonio high school. Then again, that’s precisely the point.
The brand-new CAST Tech High School—which boasts a collaborative partnership with UTSA—is the first in a developing network of career-themed local schools known collectively as Centers for Applied Science and Technology. The school specifically focuses on education in computer coding, cybersecurity, gaming, animation, digital media, business, and entrepreneurship. Located in a newly remodeled building on the Fox Tech High School campus near downtown’s tech district, CAST Tech aims to be an innovative magnet school for students with passions for pursuing careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Turning the original Fox Tech building—a vocational training facility built in the 1930s—into a high-tech haven for bright teenage students was no small feat. Dropped ceilings were removed, clutter was cleared, and natural light became a focal point. Beyond the bricks, however, the CAST Tech facility ingeniously integrates technology.
As an in-district charter school, CAST Tech symbolizes the San Antonio Independent School District’s effort to craft a homegrown pipeline of STEM talent as the gap between high-tech jobs and young Americans capable of filling those positions continues to grow. What many don’t realize, however, is that the effort to fill this void has created its own void of qualified STEM educators. That’s one of many ways in which UTSA’s College of Education and Human Development hopes to be of service.
Through the foundation of a UTSA Lab School on the CAST Tech campus, COEHD faculty members and students will provide academic support and resources. In the early stages of this budding alliance, teacher preparation, mentoring, and research are three crucial paths in which UTSA and CAST Tech aim to benefit from each other.
“The UTSA and CAST Tech partnership is grounded in a strong desire to meaningfully intertwine two innovative approaches to STEM education,” says Margo DelliCarpini, COEHD dean. “UTSA is continually innovating its approaches in order to best educate and nurture the next generation of STEM teachers for the good of students in our community. This partnership is the best of both worlds.”
Additionally, CAST Tech is offering a different approach to the high school experience in nearly every imaginable way. Most notably, the demanding curriculum blends self-paced digital classwork with project-based learning and “real world” work with industry partners. Students will have the opportunity to earn industry-recognized certificates as they participate in job shadowing and internships with companies such as H-E-B, Tech Bloc, Rackspace, USAA, Frost Bank, and Geekdom.
Furthermore, CAST Tech students will graduate with a diploma and a minimum of 30 college credits that will transfer to UTSA and other area colleges. Graduates could ideally earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field by the age of 20.
“It’s exciting to lead a campus designed to be an incubator of the experiential learning model, while acting as a learning lab for other educators and administrators,” says CAST Tech principal Melissa Alcala ’09, who earned her doctoral degree in educational leadership from UTSA. “As a result, CAST Tech is a place of learning for all those in the building—including the adults.”
In more ways than one the UTeachSA program feels like CAST Tech’s kindred spirit. As a collaboration between COEHD and the College of Sciences, UTeachSA provides STEM majors who have an interest in teaching practical exposure in a classroom as early as their freshman year. If teaching appears to be a good fit, they will spend the next four years earning their STEM field degree and teaching certification simultaneously.
"UTSA is continually innovating its approaches in order to best educate and nurture the next generation of STEM teachers."
After the initial observation phase, students serve as assistants in classrooms of UTeach alumni working in the community. Eventually, they lead clinical instruction throughout the course. In other words, the UTeachSA curriculum emphasizes inquiry- and project-based learning, and graduates from the program often gain more hands-on experience than their student teaching peers.
“One of the pillars of the UTeach program for UTSA is project-based learning. We want them to experience it, so we need to have them in a school where that’s done at scale,” explains Carmen Fies, associate professor of interdisciplinary learning and teaching, who is codirector of UTeachSA as well as UTSA’s educator in residence at CAST Tech. “This is a perfect match [between UTSA and] CAST Tech.”
Fies says two UTeachSA students will start their process of observation and assistance at CAST Tech after the fall semester, but that number will continue to grow as the student population grows. The school accepted 175 ninth-graders in this first academic year, and will enroll students from the ninth through 12th grades by the fall of 2020. As many as eight UTeachSA students will be learning and operating in CAST Tech classrooms three years from now.
From its innovative facility and unique curriculum to gifted STEM-loving students that previously attended several different school districts, CAST Tech has certainly piqued the interest of many educational researchers.
“I have a whole bunch of curiosities,” Fies says with a note of excitement in her voice, going on to describe the charter school as a “nirvana” for research. “This is an amazing opportunity for us to do truly substantive work that can inform and add to our knowledge base.”
COEHD faculty as well as graduate and undergraduate students will study many distinctive facets at CAST Tech over the coming years. A few primary interests include the value to which emergent technologies engage students, the positive and negative effects of industry involvement in the school, and an examination of the school’s gender makeup. (Because men vastly outnumber women in STEM professions, CAST Tech made a conscious effort to reach out to teenage girls during recruitment. It worked. Of the 175 freshmen who started this year, 58 are female.)
As the partnership evolves, Alcala says, UTSA students will be on site to measure the program’s effectiveness and work in collaboration with the CAST Tech faculty to highlight what works best. She adds that this relationship will be mutually beneficial as theory and practice come together to provide both parties with authentic feedback. “I envision faculty from UTSA and CAST Tech working collaboratively to share their research findings through the development of published articles and presentations at national conferences,” she says. “The relationship between the two schools will make both programs stronger.”