Residential High School Instruction

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The Arkansas School for Mathematics, Science and the Arts helps us understand how to:

+ Establish a schoolwide culture of academic excellence

+ Build upon students’ motivation and interests

+ Prepare students for highly rewarding STEM careers using instructional techniques that mirror the workplace

Students who really do gain the skills to be contributors and game changers are those who have guidance and support along the way.
— Corey Alderice, Director, ASMSA

In 2011, high school senior Bobby Watkins became the only semifinalist from Arkansas in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology, gaining national recognition for his research. Watkins conducted an anatomical study comparing Komodo dragons with a dinosaur cousin of Tyrannosaurus Rex. He received a sizable monetary award and his name was listed in USA Today.

That same year, another Arkansas high school senior named Arnab Dey won second place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s largest international pre-college science competition. Dey used his knowledge of jet engines to design a more effective inhaler for asthma medication. Two other organizations, impressed with Dey’s research, also awarded him monetary prizes.

Not only did Watkins and Dey show huge potential as future scientists, they both attended the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Science and the Arts (ASMSA) in Hot Springs. ASMSA is one of only 16 public residential science and math high schools in the country. The school sets a high standard for the rest of the state in STEM education.

ASMSA’s director, Corey Alderdice, believes the school is successful because it combines the best aspects of both high school and college. Juniors and seniors at ASMSA have “the supervision, the safety, and the support that we expect in traditional secondary education programs,” as well as “the rigor, the opportunity, and the research experiences most commonly found at the undergraduate level.” Students who live together regularly look to each other for support as they work through the challenges of their project-based learning experiences. That’s how ASMSA mirrors a typical collegiate experience. Students also enjoy the benefit of being a short walk down the hall from their highly qualified teachers–every ASMSA instructor has at least a master’s degree, and a third have Ph.Ds.

Alderdice explains that conversations about the material do not stop when the classroom bell rings. Over the span of two years, ASMSA students have ample time to cultivate their interests in STEM disciplines.

Like other model STEM programs, the ASMSA curriculum is project-based and teaches problem-solving. Students have the freedom to pick their major two-year research projects based on their interests; they have four full semesters to finish, which creates room for the rigor and depth that Arnab Dey’s and Bobby Watkins’s research showed. That helps explain why ASMSA’s 2,031 graduates have been awarded more than $166 million in college scholarships since 1993.

Many people believe that gifted youth will find a way to excel on their own, regardless of what school they attend. Alderdice strongly disagrees. While ASMSA does attract the best of the best, he says, "The students who really do gain the skills to be contributors and game changers are those who have guidance and support along the way.” 

At ASMSA, students receive tutoring three days a week. Instructors see this as a necessary piece of the learning process, especially since they’re dealing with very challenging subjects. “If we’re going to create a pipeline of students who ultimately persist toward earning degrees in STEM subjects,” says Alderdice, “we need to give them the tools to develop what the literature now calls ‘grit’ to keep pursuing these subjects with passion and vigor.” 

Gail McClure, senior manager of sponsored projects for the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority, says. “We have students from all over Arkansas, all kinds of income levels, attending ASMSA. So it makes logical sense for us to partner with the school to expand our outreach in STEM around the state.”

Of course, every school can’t be like ASMSA; however, many of its core features can advance STEM in schools throughout Arkansas. According to Alderice, great afterschool programs, robotics tournaments, and school-within-a-school programs all apply ASMSA’s principles of learning. “Finding individuals who are interested in these areas and giving them the opportunity to connect with talented teachers and motivated peers—I think that’s the piece of the puzzle that could be scaled no matter where you are,” he said.