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US Sen. Jeanne Shaheen visits STEAM Ahead students at Manchester West

MANCHESTER - U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a strong supporter of the STEM program - Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — Friday afternoon visited the Manchester variation: STEAM Ahead, which adds Arts to the mix.

STEAM Ahead is now in its second year, based at Manchester High School West but open to students from all Manchester high schools.

A former teacher, Shaheen spoke not only with teachers but also with students who are so enthusiastic about the program that their attendance averages 97 percent, as compared to 87 percent for the rest of the student body.

There are about 55 students in both the freshman and sophomore classes. West Principal Chris Motika said there is space for 75, but transportation for students from other schools is a challenge. "There is a shuttle," he said, but it means students arrive late.

One of the attractions of the program is the ability to earn college credit. 

That was part of what appealed to sophomore Cara Andrews, 15.

Among the careers that interest her now are pharmacy and pediatrics, although she's open to other possibilities. Participation in the STEAM program could send her in another career direction, and since college is so expensive, she liked the idea of a free college credit.

University of New Hampshire-Manchester and Manchester Community College offer the courses, which students take in the second semester.

Motika said STEAM isn't a course. "It’s an instructional model," he said, and he looks forward to having students who have been participants in the junior versions of STEAM in the elementary and middle schools.

He said the program at West will probably be evaluated next year, when the first "class" completes three years of STEAM Ahead.

"We need to see strong attendance, to see academic gains, to see behavioral changes," he said, with STEAM as the engine.

Students are encouraged to demonstrate knowledge acquired not only through traditional tests, but also through projects. 

STEAM Ahead wasn’t cheap to start, but former Manchester mayor and longtime West principal, Robert Baines, now head of community relations for Dyn, said 16 businesses pledged $2,500 a year for three years. With $300,000, he said, six classrooms were retrofitted with the latest technology and furniture. "This is the same as we have at Dyn," he said, pointing to a table in one of the classrooms. Every student also has a Chromebook to use throughout the school year.

While participation is first-come, first-served, math teacher Robin Henkle said the classes are about 50-50 in terms of gender. "We do a good job balancing," she said.

Christine Aspinwall, who teaches STEAM biology, but also teaches anatomy and physiology as electives, says some of the teachers are fairly new, like Henkle, and some are veterans. Although it wasn’t deliberate, she said, "Most of the teachers are women."

Engineering teacher Dan Colburn said the students in the STEAM program take field trips to places like the Palace Theater, the Currier Museum of Art, the Millyard Museum and the Audubon Society. They also visit manufacturing companies like Velcro and Admix in Londonderry. "We try to incorporate all the elements," he said.