SparkNC brings a new way of learning to Scotland High School

By Ben Rappaport

While his peers spend their mornings in math or English class, Trevon Wall connects wires to circuit boards for the robotic car he’s building and coding from scratch.

Wall, a senior at Scotland High School, is one of the first in the state to experience SparkNC, a new curriculum aimed at teaching high-tech skills. 

“I like to be hands-on,” Wall said. “I love to build robots or electronics because it’s a new type of challenge.” 

Scotland County Schools is one of 17 school districts in North Carolina that are part of the pilot program for SparkNC, a nonprofit that received $3 million from the General Assembly for start-up costs in the 2023 state budget

Participating schools have special labs to facilitate a non-traditional learning structure: At Scotland High, desk chairs were abandoned for swiveling stools, tile flooring replaced carpet and drab white walls were painted vibrant purple and green. 

SparkNC also provides districts with special educational software to teach more than 55 units that cover topics such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and animation. For kinesthetic learners like Wall, students are given kits to build and code robots like cars and mechanical arms.

Roshein McClain, the SparkNC coach at Scotland High School, showss students how to use Roblox for video game design. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)

This semester, 30 Scotland High School students participated in SparkNC, which they take for credit during school hours. While the class is self-paced, students are guided by a coach who has been trained in the material. Roshein McClain, the coach at Scotland High, said his students have been receptive to a new way of thinking.

“This is stuff I was never taught in school,” McClain said. “But it’s a new world out there and they need these types of skills — coding, animation, etc. — if they want to be successful.”

Emari Alford, a junior, said the class opened her eyes to new opportunities and industries. She used the computer game Roblox to learn about video game development, coding and animations. She learned about finance in one module, an experience that solidified her goal of going to college and earning a master’s degree in business administration.

Companies like SAS, Apple, IBM, Cisco, Epic Games, Live Oak Bank, and CoLab have partnered with SparkNC to design modules for students and host internships for graduates. The modules also go beyond the professional. One called “Food is Fun” uses video game design to teach students about nutrition, a balanced diet and exercise.

“I think it helps to gamify education,” said Meredith Bounds, a spokesperson for Scotland County Schools. “It keeps students engaged in a different way.”

McClain said he limited the inaugural class to juniors and seniors. Following the success of the first year — about 60 students enrolled across two semesters — he plans to allow all high school students to participate in the SparkNC lab next school year.

McClain said the program is especially important in a rural area like Scotland County, where only 12% of residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher. (The statewide figure is 39%.) Scotland also has the second-highest unemployment rate in the state as of March at 6.3%, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce.

Emari Alford, a Scotland High School junior, works on online modules in the SparkNC lab. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)

Some students are already using the skills they learned beyond the classroom. Tommy Jacobs, a senior at Scotland High, was in the class in the fall semester. He said he found the artificial intelligence and information technology modules especially useful. Jacobs is now doing a student internship with Scotland County Schools where he helps solve IT problems for students and staff throughout the district. 

“This is the future of education — and I’m not just talking about high school — the ability to work at your own pace, partner with industry, achieve a skill,” Sen. Michael Lee, a Republican representing New Hanover County, told the legislative education oversight committee in March.

In Scotland County, part of the state funding went toward improving internet capacity in several classrooms because the SparkNC program often requires high-speed internet to run its software.  

SparkNC was recognized as one of 13 organizations in a national report commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The program is looking to expand to all interested school districts, charter schools and community colleges across the state.

Trevon Wall, a senior at Scotland High School, shows off the robotic car he has been coding and building as part of the SparkNC lab. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)