When U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-San Antonio) walked onto the School of Science and Technology (SST) campus Tuesday, he found a very well-researched group of students waiting for him.
As chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Smith had prepared many remarks to share with the student body at the STEM-focused charter school, but he might not have expected the students to be so thoroughly prepared for his visit.
Preparation and thoroughness are part of the culture at SST. The Title I school holds a 100% college acceptance rate, and 75% of its graduates go on to four-year universities. The first thing visitors see upon entry are portraits of alumni attending or graduated from elite universities including: MIT, Carnegie Melon, the Naval Academy, and many more.
According to Abel De Leon, dean of academics, the graduates often visit and comment that their freshmen classes in college are easier than some of their classes at SST. The school is one of only 24 districts (districts include charter networks) in the state to achieve a distinction on the STAAR test’s Index 4, college readiness.
While students clearly excel on the STAAR test, SST principal Celal Karskin does not make a big deal about the tests.
“We teach beyond the STAAR. It’s not a problem for our students,” Karskin said.
Smith presented the school with a certificate commemorating their entry into the Congressional Record in honor of the school’s 10th anniversary.
In 2005, a group of UTSA professors including Turgay Korkmaz put their heads together to address the lack of STEM-educated professionals in San Antonio. They agreed that middle school and high school STEM education would be the right way to start.
“We decided this would be a good contribution to the community,” Korkmaz said.
The school has grown since 2005, expanding from levels six through nine to a full K through 12 program split between two campuses, SST; SST Discovery, which houses Kindergarten through fifth grade; and SST- Alamo, K-8.
The SST curriculum puts a heavy emphasis on STEM skills, but students develop through the humanities as well. Student poetry and art are displayed alongside robots and science fair projects. Students seem well aware that will need a breadth of skills to succeed.
Sophomore Sarahi Rivas presented Smith with a painting of bees landing on a bluebonnet, in honor of his bee-keeping hobby. When senior Kenneth Matthews introduced the congressman, he detailed the events of Smith’s life including his children, hobbies, and career path, which led to his political career.
“Like we Millennials are expected to do, Congressman Smith has worked in many different careers,” he said.
He ended the speech with Smith’s recent legislative accomplishments, which would directly impact the SST juniors and seniors: Smith’s STEM education bill (H.R. 1020) signed into law in 2015, and his patent reform bill signed into law in 2011.
“Hopefully some of us engineers will be able to use (the patent reform law),” Matthews said.
Smith gave a brief on the goals of the STEM Education Act, including expanded training for teachers and more scholarships for students in STEM fields. The bill also brings computer science under the STEM umbrella.
“Your federal government spends $3 billion on STEM every year,” Smith told the students.
The conservative Republican is not usually one to celebrate government spending, but as Smith said, this is a matter of economic security and global competition. As the U.S. falls further behind developed countries in math and science, our economy is losing valuable jobs to the higher-performing countries, Smith said. STEM education is not just important, it has become a critical mission.
“We have no choice,” he said.
Smith also encouraged the young women in the room to ignore whatever stereotypes and prejudices may exist in STEM fields calling the stereotypes “absolutely false.”
The patent laws simply had not been updated in decades, Smith said, and he wanted to see a patent process that fit into the 21st century.
The conversation quickly moved to a Q&A session, which allowed SST students time to voice concerns beyond STEM. Smith fielded questions on his support for the Patriot Act, his position on regulations for greenhouse emissions, and a prediction on the future of the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat.
The students’ poise and confidence was by far the most remarkable thing about the Q&A portion of the visit. Students were clear, direct, and bold, while remaining respectful.
“The kids have a lot of interaction with adults they see as professionals,” De Leon said.
Many of the teachers at SST hold doctorates in their fields. Students are encouraged to actively engage their teachers, and the confidence sinks in.
One student, who asked the Congressman about his position on regulations for greenhouse emissions, also referenced the fact that Smith’s daughter, Nell, works for a solar power company in California.
“I think that humans have some impact on climate change,” Smith said.
Smith is one of the most rigorous skeptics of climate change on Capitol Hill and said that there were other factors to consider before enacting costly regulations. Before increasing EPA regulations, Smith wants to see the data regarding greenhouse emissions and climate change made public.
However, according to NASA, “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.” As a public entity, all of NASA’s records and research are open to the public.
He opposes regulations like those agreed upon at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris last November, saying that there is no proof that they will have a positive effect on the environment.
“Showing action is not a good enough reason if it’s not going to have an impact,” Smith said.
He used the question on Scalia’s passing to encourage the students to vote. It is likely that the next president will appoint three justices to the Supreme Court, Smith said. The outcome of the November election will have a much larger reach than any election in recent history.
Regarding the loss of Scalia, Smith lamented losing a strict constructionist from the bench and spoke about Scalia as an enjoyable person.
“He was a happy warrior,” he said.
After a cursory dismissal of the Affordable Care Act, the last question brought the conversation back to campus. A student asked Smith if he believes in adding the arts to STEM, making it STEAM. Smith affirmed the importance of the arts, but insisted that they didn’t belong in STEM-based initiatives.
“If you’re going to open up STEM to non tech subjects, where do you stop?” said Smith.
After the students were dismissed, Smith remarked several times to Keskin that he had never seen a group perform such extensive research on his personal history. De Leon was, of course, not surprised by their thoroughness. At SST, students are constantly researching and presenting their findings at science fairs, robotics competitions, and any other opportunity they can find to practice those critical skills.
“If there’s a competition that students and teachers are interested in, we enter,” said Keskin.
Language arts helps some science-focused students to hone their communication skills, while other students chose SST as a way to round out their natural proclivity for social sciences. Senior Natalie Salazar is an athlete who wants to go into politics.
“To be the intellectual person I want to be, I have to be strong in all areas,” she said.
For parents, the school’s emphasis on well-rounded students and the freedom from test anxiety is a major selling point.
Nancy Thompson’s grandson is a sixth grader at SST, in his first year outside of a traditional public school. Thompson said that her grandson has since become interested in reading fiction, and has been relieved of crippling test anxiety.
“He won the lottery of his life,” she said, referring to the lottery application process.
Parents and students interested in SST, SST-Alamo, or SST-Discovery, the application deadline for the 2016-2017 school year is March 15.
This story was originally published on Thursday, Feb. 18.
*Top Image: Students Kyryl Trokhymchuk (left) and Natalie Salazar (right) welcome U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith into their classroom. Photo by Lorraine Aguirre.