Dominique Helwig always excelled in the sciences, so being a part of a rigorous early college program in high school that exposes Capital Region students to clean energy topics was something that enthralled her.
“I’ve always been really good with doing technology work and doing computer work and doing graphic design,” she said. “So that is where it all started for me.”
Helwig, a Ballston Spa High School senior, is a part of a new, innovative program through Ballston Spa High School and Hudson Valley Community College called the Clean Technologies & Sustainable Industries Early College High School.
On Tuesday, Helwig was one of 21 students who were a part of the first ceremony for those who have completed the early college high school program. The students received a certificate and cord acknowledging their achievements and completion of the program, similar to a graduation. Students will officially graduate from high school later this month.
“Now more than ever, we are really focusing on connecting K-12 education to higher education to jobs in the region,” said Dr. Joseph P. Dragone, the superintendent of the Ballston Spa Central School District. “And that is exactly what the heart of this program does.”
The early college program is located in the Saratoga Technology and Energy Park at the
newest HVCC educational facility in Malta. The location is called TEC-SMART, which stands for Training and Education Center for Semiconductor Manufacturing and Alternative and Renewable Technologies. The building itself is high-tech, utilizing green energies such as solar, geothermal and wind energy.
The early college program was a combined effort of the Ballston Spa school district, HVCC and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The program is currently open to 12 other school districts but will expand to 17 next year, according to Laurel Logan-King, the assistant superintendent for curriculum, assessment and pupil services at the Ballston Spa school district.
Benjamin Godgart, like Helwig, felt he was also a perfect candidate for the early college program. He began his schooling at Robert C. Parker School, a progressive pre-school-through-eighth-grade school near Albany that believes in project-based learning. When Godgart entered Columbia High School four years ago, he said he struggled with the transition. For his senior year, Godgart decided to be a part of the early college program, or TEC-SMART as students refer to it.
“Since I was raised in a progressive education environment, I struggled to re-find that in high school,” Godgart said. “At TEC-SMART, for most of our projects we worked in groups. I feel like that is preparing me for real-life situations.”
The early college program is designed for students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning concepts. The early college program believes that by 2016, the fastest-growing occupations in New York state will require a STEM background. The hope is that the early college program will prepare students for these occupations.
The program allows high school juniors and seniors to enroll in both college and high school at the same time. Students attend classes five days a week at the HVCC TEC-SMART facility and participate in a transdisciplinary learning environment.
Two days a week are dedicated to college courses and three days to high school classes. Students complete two college courses during a traditional college semester with HVCC professors and instructors. At the end of two years in the program, students will have completed more than 20 college credits.
“The types of courses that they take are rooted in the technologies, but then they also get general education coursework under their belt,” Logan-King said, “which will help them and assist them as they transition into higher education programs — whatever pathway they choose and major that they choose.”
Dominick Mercurio, a Schuylerville High School senior and now early college program graduate, did not begin his education in a progressive learning environment like Godart, but he knew he wanted to complete his high school education in one.
“I decided to be a part of this program because I felt like it was going to give me opportunities my high school was not,” he said. “I have gotten a lot of skills, such as time management, multi-tasking, and I have also learned a lot about college classes.”
Mercurio, who will attend the University at Albany next year to study nanotechnology, said he feels the early college program has prepared him far better for college than a traditional high school education would have.
“They give you the start and you have to find your own way to the finish,” he said. “It is very difficult. It is very time-consuming. But it is well worth the time and effort to get the experiences I was able to get.”
Students interested in the program must go through an application process at their home high school, preferably prior to their junior year.
For the past two years, grants from the state Education Department and NYSERDA have covered the program expenses for students. Logan-King said generous business partners are an essential component of the early college program, not just monetarily but also as mentors. Partners include The Adirondack Trust Co., CISCO Systems and Stewart’s Shops.
“We want the program to be as up-to-date as possible,” Logan-King said. “And engaging business and industry helps that to happen.”
At the end of the year, as part of the early college program, students complete a capstone project in relation to what they are studying. They showcase these projects after the end-of-the-year ceremony.
“For my product, I made something called Nano-Crete, where we put carbon nanotubes into concrete, making it stronger, lighter, more durable and lasts longer,” Mercurio said. “The reason that I decided to do this is because currently concrete is one of the largest man-made materials in the world.”
Mercurio said his product would not only be beneficial for buildings but also things such as armor for the military.
“The projects are fabulous,” Dragone said. “It represents true learning — solved around real problems that students encountered in our region and beyond.”
Godgart’s capstone project was focused on keeping track of lost items. His product, called NevrLoseIt, uses a nanotechnology RFID tracking chip to locate missing items.
“The students have collaborated and researched around solving real-world problems,” Dragone said. “That is something you just don’t see in a typical high school classroom.”
Next year Godgart will attend classes at the University at Albany Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering.
“I want to become a nano-engineer,” Godgart said. “I want to be involved in an industry that is just in its infancy.”
Helwig said the early college program has really inspired her as well.
“I have become a lot better with my time management,” she said.
Helwig’s capstone project was called Nano Care and is a skin care product that helps improve and clean the skin.
“Instead of using products or chemicals made in a factory, it’s all natural extracts,” she said. “It clears your acne, dark circles under your eyes and also stretch marks.”
Helwig goes on to explain how her product works.
“It uses nano care. The particles are so small that it has the ability — instead of just sitting on your skin — it goes deep into your pores to actually clean out the problem,” she said.
Helwig will be attending HVCC in the fall. She, like many of her early college program peers, is interested in studying civil engineering.
Sixty percent of the students who graduated from the program this year are going to continue studying at HVCC, according to Dr. Carolyn Curtis, the academic vice president at HVCC. Two students from this year’s senior class will also be joining the military.
Next year, the early college senior class will have about 50 students in it, according to Logan-King. She said she is hopeful the program will continue to expand.
“It’s an opportunity to deliver instruction differently … it is really important to provide these opportunities,” she said. “This model is one that works.”