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Memphis charter school creates classroom inside international manufacturing hub

Kayvion Walton, 17, is learning how to test water samples as part of his environmental safety project. He is one of the students from Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering participating in the school’s pilot program with Smith & Nephew.
Kayvion Walton, 17, is learning how to test water samples as part of his environmental safety project. He is one of the students from Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering participating in the school’s pilot program with Smith & Nephew.
Caroline Bauman

Ten students at a Memphis charter school will spend the majority of their senior year learning about medical engineering — all while training at a global technology giant.

Kayvion Walton, 17, is one of the seniors from Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering participating in the school’s pilot program this year with Smith & Nephew, a global business with part of its company based in south Memphis.

“I’ve been accepted to Xavier College and I wanted the chance to be out in the real world,” Walton said. “I’ve gotten to learn how robots make (prosthetic) knees here. I came in thinking I would go to school for nursing, and I’ve learned a lot about how prostheses are used in surgery.”

The seniors spend four hours of the school day working on different Smith & Nephew projects, ranging from quality checks on prosthetics to environmental safety practices. Students spend the mornings completing senior coursework at school before traveling seven miles to the manufacturing hub in South Memphis.

Called “STEM in Motion,” the program’s creation comes amidst renewed emphasis on career and technical education as part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

It is part of a larger national focus under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which holds states like Tennessee accountable for bolstering the number of career opportunities, such as apprenticeships, that are available to students. While the push for teaching career-specific skills has wide support, some research suggests that such programs leave students pigeonholed in a fast-changing economy.

But at Smith & Nephew, company officials see the program as a way to bolster a local pipeline for future jobs, said Jessica Becker, senior director of quality for Smith & Nephew. Becker sits on the MASE board and helped to coordinate the program.

“I started here as an intern and here I am more than 20 years later,” Becker said. “We, like many STEM-related companies, want to maintain talent locally. … We see real talent in these high school students and one hope of the program is that these students will return as college interns or employees someday.”

For this year, the students’ projects all focus on engineering, but that could expand in the future.

“We have teams that handle all aspects of business,” Becker said. “We’re excited to focus on engineering for now, but there’s a lot of potential for the program. We’re wanting to give students that real-world exposure that’s so rare in secondary education.”

The pilot is a first of its kind for both MASE and Smith & Nephew, who have had a longstanding partnership, said Rodrick Gaston, executive director of the 15-year-old charter school. The company is donating space and instructional time to the school, and in turn, the students are assisting in projects for free.

Gaston said they modeled the pilot after the MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, Ohio, where students spend each year of high school embedded in a different company or college around Cleveland.

Like MASE, the Cleveland high school has a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics focus. MC2 STEM opened 10 years ago as part of Cleveland’s push for more STEM-based schools and has seen successes in graduation rates and college-retention rates.

All seniors at the Memphis charter school with a 20 on the ACT and a 3.0-grade point average had the option to apply for the program, Gaston said. The school chose 10 seniors to participate out of about 20 applications.

But if all goes well during the pilot year, the goal would be to add more seniors to the Smith & Nephew program and partner a different company with the junior class. Gaston said they have had some conversations with Memphis children hospitals St. Jude and Le Bonheur on such a partnership.

If all goes well during the pilot year, the goal would be to add more seniors to the Smith & Nephew program.
If all goes well during the pilot year, the goal would be to add more seniors to the Smith & Nephew program.
Caroline Bauman

Success would look like fostering passion and curiosity among the students participating, Gaston said. But the school will also be monitoring the students’ grades and test scores to make sure that the program doesn’t take away from their academic success.

“We have a MASE teacher onsite to assist the students with their projects and incorporate lessons throughout the day,” Gaston said.

For Lakayla Mathews, a 17-year-old in the program, the biggest takeaway has been time management.

“I’m learning how to balance school work and this internship,” Mathews said. “I wanted to do it because I wanted that exposure before I graduated high school. I want to be a clinical psychologist, and learning work ethic and teamwork here will help in later on.”

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