The Paulding County Academy of Science, Research and Medicine recognized its first graduating class in May.
The program for high school students is based at Paulding County High School in Dallas. It began in 2012 and has been growing since.
The Academy is a magnet program that allows high school students interested in science, technology, engineering, medicine (STEM) and other related fields to gain a hands-on and unique education, said Marc Pedersen, who has been teaching in the program since it began four years ago.
Pedersen is a former finalist for Georgia Teacher of the Year and recently received an award from the nonprofit Biotechnology Institute that recognizes STEM teachers for their impact on the future growth of the biotechnology industry through career development.
Biotechnology is the use of living cells or bacteria to make useful products such as crops that insects are less likely to destroy.
Within the Academy, Pedersen teaches biology, chemistry, environmental science, biotechnology and AP physics. He also has led his students in conducting research on DNA replication as part of the program.
Admission is open to all middle school students in the Paulding school system. The program accepts 60 students per year.
To get into the program, eighth-grade students with a passion for STEM subjects apply through written essays and submitting teacher recommendations, Pedersen said. The students’ test scores and grades from their middle school classes are also taken into consideration during the application process, he said.
“We really look for a true interest and passion for these STEM fields,” Pedersen said. “We are seeing these aspects as being the most important factors.”
He said he believes the academy is important to all Paulding County high school-age students because it provides them the opportunity to have internships, a collaborative learning environment and a project-based learning environment.
Pedersen said the program has collaborated with Kennesaw State University, the Nature Conservancy, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Kristy Dierner, a professor at Cornell University who will be working with Academy students on biotechnical sciences and environmental DNA.
In addition to the hands-on experiences the program’s students gain, they are also guaranteed Advanced Placement (AP) classes for which they can receive college credit, Pedersen said.
AP classes offered to these students will always be available regardless of how few students sign up for the class, Pedersen said. For example, enrollment in the Academy is the only way freshman students can take an AP biology course.
“It is not a number game,” Pedersen said. “Students chose a pathway and it is guaranteed that we will offer these courses.”
The Academy also offers a biotech pathway, a combination of four courses that are not offered at any other school in the district; and a certified nursing assistant program, which is also unique, according to Pedersen.
“The students are given opportunities to solve community problems and apply science in a real-world context,” he said.
The 2016 Paulding County High School valedictorian, Mary Eason was a student in the Academy throughout her high school career. Eason said the academy appealed to her because of the academy’s nursing program and her interest in pursuing a career in the medical field.
“I went to the Academy because I really wanted to challenge myself and I had heard amazing things about the program,” Eason said.
According to Eason, having the same classmates throughout her time in the academy, and teachers working together to plan their testing schedules made the program less stressful.
Eason also said now that the academy has been around for four years and has had a chance to solidify its academic programs, she would recommend it to incoming high school freshman students interested in the STEM fields.
Eason will attend the University of Georgia in the fall to major in biology and hopes to attend medical school.