July 9, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

You’ve heard the old story repeated time and again: American students are failing to keep up with students internationally in math and science.

High-tech businesses have more job openings than qualified applicants.

While some curse the darkness, a program at Omaha North High School is shining some light. A fast-growing program, STEM Education, now is offering activity and problem-based, hands-on learning in science, technology, engineering, and math. The STEM Education program, unique to North High School, now includes more than 400 students.

“I can tell you that the push on STEM education has increased dramatically over the past six to seven years, says

John Vinchattle, North High’s Magnet Facilitator.  The goal is to “address our perceived lack of qualified candidates for high-tech careers.”

It seems that “a push” is an under-statement. As part of its massive growth, the effort includes a robotics program that has grown from just two students six years ago to about 70 students today. The school anticipates more than 100 youth to be enrolled in the program next year.
In fact, the program grew so much that the school hosted the VEX Robotics tournament in December. In February, the school also hosted the Nebraska State Robotics Championship. The event drew 120 teams and more than 500 students.

“We love to get people into our building,” says Jeremy Wiemer, robotics teacher and coach. “We have an excellent facility that works out very well for a tournament like this and great staff at the building and district level that coordinate these large events.”

Teams in the event came from as far away as Colorado.

The tournaments are surprisingly involved. Event judges first interview teams before competition begins. Participants present each robot to the judges and explain the process they used to build it. Judges ask the teams questions and students are evaluated based on their knowledge of their robots as well as the concepts they’ve learned. Students then create alliances with other participants and work together to build a championship-caliber machine.

“We strive to offer a top-notch, 21st-century education,” Vinchattle says.

Ultimately, the goal of the STEM program is to help college-bound students achieve a well-rounded education with an emphasis on STEM.

“We are very proud of our students and their accomplishments,” Vinchattle says.  “We work every day to keep challenging them with relevant real-world experiences.

“I think we’ll continue to thrive because of the students that make up the program, the teachers that challenge the kids, and the community that supports our mission.”