LSU College of Engineering Partners with Baton Rouge’s Lee High School for STEM-Focused ‘Early College’ Curriculum

by Morgan Kastner

Baton Rouge’s revamped Lee Magnet High School is offering future engineering students a big head start on their college degree in STEM fields through a partnership that includes the LSU College of Engineering.

The program — which begins with this year’s Lee freshman class of about 350 — is similar to traditional Advanced Placement courses in that it will allow high-school students to enter college with up to 30 credit hours already in hand. But where AP courses often focus on general studies or liberal arts topics, the Lee-LSU partnership’s curriculum is in science, technology, engineering and math fields, which means participants can enter college with the skills and confidence to hit the ground running for STEM-related studies.

“If you look at the projections for our workforce, and look at what jobs will be needed, you’ll see they are all in STEM,” says Frank Neubrander, the Demarcus D. Smith Alumni Professor in the LSU Department of Mathematics and the director of the Gordon A. Cain Center for STEM Literacy, who helped orchestrate LSU’s involvement in the partnership. “We need to educate the next generation of STEM students. We need to educate them to be computer programmers, to be engineers, to go to Mars ... and beyond. Lee High builds that foundation.”

A High School Becomes 3 ‘Academies’

Lee High has seen a massive rethinking in the past several years, being rebuilt as a $54.7 million magnet school. During construction, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System reached a $1.5 million, five-year contract with LSU’s Cain Center to turn Lee High — and eventually other public schools in East Baton Rouge Parish — into an “early college” for LSU with dual-enrollment courses.

The completed Lee Magnet High School now has put that partnership fully into action with three “academies”: Engineering and Robotics, Digital and Media Arts, and Biomedical Sciences. Specialized dual-enrollment courses in the academies can carry college credit for students.

Vanessa Begat, a research associate in the College of Engineering and lead engineering teacher at Lee High, is responsible for training the instructors hired for engineering-themed courses. She notes that computer science is one area with full crossover in the program. “Regardless of the academy, a student chooses, they will be introduced to programming and coding,” Begat says. “That’s key to the future. If you don’t know how to program, you’re going to be limited in your college degree options as well as job opportunities.”

Craig Harvey, the College of Engineering’s associate dean for academic affairs, was part of the team that prepared curricula for Lee’s engineering academy. One key focus was helping college students get past a recurring issue of falling behind because they spend their first year trying to determine which engineering discipline to focus on, Harvey says. “So much of engineering is not well-known to high-school students,” he says. “They don’t understand what engineers do.”

The Lee program is designed to counter this by exposing students to engineering and college-level coursework early in their studies so they are prepared from the time they first step on LSU’s campus, Harvey says.

Planning for a Seamless Transition

Begat notes there are ongoing fundraising efforts to purchase more technical equipment needed for the academies’ “wow spaces” for larger projects. “In the engineering academy, we had a vision for the equipment we wanted in the wow spaces, and that included 3D printers as well as full-size mills and lathes that were identical to the ones at LSU,” Begat said. “We wanted to make sure students at Lee were learning on certain machines so it’s a seamless transition when they go to LSU.”

The 3D printers have been purchased but the mills and lathes have not, so for this first year the students will use virtual equipment. “The software allows students to do everything they would do on the real machine, but instead of physically cutting material, they’re doing it on a screen,” she says. “But it’s more than a simulation; it actually shows you the inner workings of the machine without the lid on.”

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