Biotechnology students in Morganton beam for the camera.


Summer Accelerator expands to Morganton

North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics’ Summer Accelerator 2022 recently finished another run of successful programming, with more than 900 registrations from across North Carolina, the United States, and the world for nearly 30 short courses ranging from Greek Mythology: The Science of Monsters, to Analytical Chemistry, to Build-a-Bot: Engineering and Design. 

And this year, in addition to welcoming students to the NCSSM-Durham campus, Accelerator had the honor of being the first program to serve students on the school’s newly-opened Morganton campus.

The tuition-based program offers advanced and unique short-form STEM courses and is open to any rising 7th- through 12th-grade student from anywhere. Scholarships are available for students with financial need, and the revenue raised through tuition supports free NCSSM programs that help underrepresented students in North Carolina. A slightly less intense version of the program, called Early Accelerator, was also offered for rising 5th- and 6th-graders. This year, more than 900 seats were filled.

“I can’t begin to explain how excited we were to finally get the chance to do what we were created to do, which is serve students,” says Gina Barrier, NCSSM-Morganton’s Director of Summer Programs and Extended Partnerships. “For so long, we watched this campus being built. To finally get students in the dorms and the labs and exploring the campus felt like this great release of energy that we’d been building toward for quite a while.”

So new was the Morganton campus that Chris Thomas, a STEM Instructor and NCSSM’s Experiential Learning Lead in Durham who taught a course in Morganton called Mountains and Minerals: Geoscience Exploration, had to rip the plastic off the mattress in the dorm room where he lived for a week while teaching. “A bunch of foam pieces came out of the blinds when I opened them because I was the first person that lowered them,” Thomas also revealed. “That was the fun part of knowing you’re the first one. Using that [instructional] space with the students made it even more exciting.”

Exciting, too, was the opportunity to make new connections with the community. “I think the nice thing is all the new partnerships we’ve established,” Thomas said. “We worked with South Mountain State Park. We went to Chimney Rock State Park. The students visited the Geological and Environmental Sciences Department at Appalachian State. So the fun thing is now a lot of new places and people are getting to interact with NCSSM that normally wouldn’t interact with us just working at the Durham campus or teaching at the Durham campus.”

Sydney Silwal, a rising 7th-grader at Liberty Middle school in Morganton and one of the students in Thomas’ course, found out about the program from her older brother, an MIT student who had graduated previously from NCSSM-Durham. In addition to Thomas’ Mountains and Minerals course, Sydney took two others as well that piqued her interest and “got [her] out of the house.”

Most intriguing of all was the opportunity to explore topics in detail. “Some of the stuff [covered during Summer Accelerator], they don’t really go into in depth at my regular school,” Sydney said, “so I really think this is going to help me during the school year.”

Students on the Durham campus gather data in the Analytical Chemistry course.

The Durham campus was active as well. Keethan Kleiner ’09, an instructor of computer science at NCSSM-Durham, was impressed by the students he led in the Introduction to Machine Learning with Programming course he taught in Durham.

“This group of students was great,” Kleiner said. “They went in all sorts of great directions when exploring topics before deciding on a project. It was great seeing them bounce ideas off of each other. The program is only three weeks long, so not all projects are completed, but that’s not the point. They worked hard and accomplished a lot. I’ve had multiple students contact me since the program ended about completing their project and writing a full research paper for submission to competitions.”

Zacchaeus “Zai” Jones, a rising senior at Lenoir Early College High School in Kinston, is a Summer Accelerator veteran. Zai first enrolled in the program in Durham in 2019, taking two courses as a rising freshman. Aside from the Covid-madated pause in 2020, he has participated each summer since.

It was the perfect fit. “I love to learn, and science and math are my favorite subjects,” says Zai, who took Epidemiology and Public Health this summer. The course is already paying off for him at his home high school. “I’m taking a biology course now, and a lot of what I learned in the public health class, I’m using those skills to help me out now.”

Since it was first introduced in 2014, Summer Accelerator has been a hit with students throughout the state. The reception received by the program in Morganton continues to demonstrate the incredible demand for NCSSM programming that reaches not only high school students, but all the way down into the late elementary school years.

“Summer Accelerator has become a staple of NCSSM’s summer programming,” says Alicia Stokley, NCSSM-Durham’s Interim Summer Programs Manager. “We’re proud of the work we do here, and we want to share it far and wide whenever possible. Summer Accelerator helps us do that; it’s a great way to offer a bit of the NCSSM experience to any student from anywhere. The kids in this program are doing amazing things, and it is such a joy to see them grow as a result, both academically and personally.”