CHARLESTON (AP) — As the final bell of the day blared through the halls of Riverside High School, hundreds of backpack-toting students bee-lined for the parking lot and an afternoon of freedom.
But sophomores Ginny Milsap and Michael Gilmore headed to the upstairs science lab, donned safety goggles, and began burning peanuts.
“We’re trying to see whether cashews or pecans have more power,” said Gilmore, lighting a pecan affixed to a paperclip on fire. Milsap adjusted a charred soda can filled with water that dangled above the nut and got her thermometer ready.
“The more the temperature of the water changes, the more energy there is in the nut,” said Milsap. “So we measure the temperature before and after and see which has the biggest change.”
Education officials say HSTA is one of the best-kept secrets in West Virginia education and think they’ve hit on a home-grown solution to help clamp down on major problems in the state: a low college-going rate and a lack of professionals with science and health backgrounds.
Since the program began 17 years ago with just a handful of students, it has expanded to 26 counties throughout the state and serves about 800 students.
Lawmakers and higher education officials in West Virginia agree that the state needs to seriously invest in ways to increase its college-going and retention rates or face a crippling hole in the workforce in upcoming years.
According to the Higher Education Policy Commission, only 59 percent of West Virginia high school graduates went to college in 2010. That’s below the national average of almost 64 percent.
Students and teachers involved in HSTA say the program could become a model to reverse some of the numbers. Just look at the statistics, said Chester.
Ninety-six percent of students in the HSTA program attend college. That’s in a state where only 43 out of every 100 ninth graders complete high school and head to college.
HSTA costs about $2 million a year to operate and is funded by a number of nonprofit organizations and state money.
The biggest hurdle the program faces, officials say, is spreading the word.