Miguel Castillo standing next to a robot he built.
Miguel Castillo created a robot with classmates

At the age of 10, Miguel Castillo loved Transformers and Lego. He built new models at lightning speed. He worked out how the toys changed from cars to robots and back again. He left pieces lying on the carpet, which hurt his parents’ feet when they trod on them. This was just collateral damage in a personal war between the Autobots and the Decepticons. 

Around the same time Miguel was figuring out plastic automatons, Zipporiah Bush, known as Zippy, was figuring out her Rubik’s cube. When she wasn’t unscrambling the colours, she could be found measuring earthworms. She didn’t like touching the worms, but she had a science fair to win. She was determined to prove that they would grow bigger in compost than in soil. She was right. 

And at the same time that was happening, Richard Marshall was learning to write code, or otherwise beating his dad in countless hours of computer games. 

Eight years on and the trio are still passionate about engineering, science and technology. In fact, they are blazing a trail. 

In May 2016, they were in the first class to graduate from a small school in Raleigh, the oak-lined capital of North Carolina, called Wake High School.

The neat exterior and high-tech facilities might lead you to think it is an elite private institute. In fact, the state-funded school teaches children from all sorts of backgrounds, all with something in common: they love science, and want to make a difference in the world. 

Richard Mashall holding an iPad standing in front of a red and white background.
Richard Marshall now studies computer science at university

Wake High School specialises in the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths. It makes it an appealing place for children who like computers, or worms, for instance. 

It isn’t the only school with this specialisation in the USA – but it does have a unique teaching method. A list of genuine engineering challenges form the basis of its entire curriculum. 

The Grand Challenges for Engineering were identified by the US National Academy of Engineering (NAE), an institution with more than 2,000 members including accomplished engineers from business, academia and government. 

Randy Atkins is Director of Communications at the NAE. He described the challenges as, “a set of huge advancements society needs to crack in order to improve – or even protect – life on this planet.”

They include many things society needs to achieve imminently, from developing better medicines to providing access to clean water and improving solar power. 

The school doesn’t expect students to solve them though. Or not yet, at least. “We use the Grand Challenges as an anchor,” Principal David Schwenker says. “What we are really teaching are critical thinking skills.” 

They reach into all areas of the syllabus. In history, students researched which of the 14 challenges, if solved, could have helped an ancient civilisation survive and why. In science, they carried out tests on local ground water as part of a project researching access to clean water: another of the challenges.

These projects make the interconnected nature of global issues obvious for students. They create passion for tackling real problems in the real world.

Many of Wake’s students go on to study engineering, but that’s not the only aim. Those who don’t will still have a bigger-picture mindset.

The school demonstrates what scientists and engineers actually do and how significant they are to our lives. America faces a critical shortage of these professionals as not enough young people are choosing these subjects at university.

Zippy, now aged 18, says her old school’s curriculum was motivating. “We weren’t learning things that we just forgot about when we left the classroom. These are actually things my generation needs to fix.” 

In September 2016, she began her degree in Biochemistry and Japanese at North Carolina State University. An intriguing combination, the subjects reflect her interest in people, both as organisms and societies. Richard will also attend NCSU to study computer science.

As for Miguel, he is going on to study business administration at Babson College, Massachusetts. He is the eldest of three siblings and first in his family to go to college. His favourite hobby? He still builds robots. 

“Your interests as a small kid often show what you’ll be good at later on,” Miguel says. “Wake harnessed my interests. We didn’t learn math for the sake of math. We learnt small pieces of a big puzzle.”

Story by Sarah Kempe 

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