"We recognize that the future of agriculture depends on young Oklahomans and their passionate pursuit of science and mathematics."
Mary Kate Wilson,
director of philanthropy, engagement and project management
In addition to its campus in Oklahoma City, OSSM supports eight regional centers in rural areas of Oklahoma in partnership with career technology centers. These centers provide advanced science and math curricula to high school seniors, allowing qualified students to take advanced physics and calculus courses while still attending their home high schools for other classes and activities.
"My goal is to broaden OSSM's reach and impact through our residential center where students are immersed in an intensive academic environment, through our regional centers and through our newly created virtual regional center where we deliver instruction via interactive video conferencing," said OSSM President Frank Wang, Ph.D. "We also hope to expand our middle school outreach and teacher training programs so that as many students and educators in the state as possible can benefit from OSSM. We want to be a bright beacon of academic excellence statewide."
At the heart of the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics is the cafeteria much like any other high school.
But unlike any other high school, lunchtime at OSSM is characterized by the quiet hum of small conversations between groups of students and their teachers.
When it's time to resume the day, students simply come and go on their own; a bell never rings to signal the beginning or end of the meal. It is a small but noticeable variation in the high school template.
Spend a day at OSSM and the differences become more pronounced. Cell phones do not dominate student attention spans. Challenging coursework is not only expected but appreciated. A general collegial atmosphere replaces any juvenile antics. The entire rhythm of this high school is different, and different is good.
OSSM is a public, two-year, residential high school for students with exceptional ability in science and mathematics. There are only 16 similar schools in the country.
Funded by the state legislature, the school first opened its classrooms to students in 1990.
Today, 144 high school juniors and seniors from across Oklahoma attend and live at the Oklahoma City campus at no cost. The admission process for Oklahoma students is based on academic achievement, interest in science and math, and the ability to handle residency. Students live in dorms on campus, entering a university-like setting two years before most of their peers.
"It's like college before it counts," said Gracie Mitchell, senior.
OSSM seems like college because that's how it was designed. Students choose courses to fit their preferred areas of study, much like a university student selects a degree program. The average high school student in a traditional public school can take up to three courses in biology. At OSSM, students can take up to 12 biology courses with options ranging from general biology to endocrinology, microbiology and genetics.
In addition to science and math, students take art and physical education courses, like multimedia creation, yoga and rowing. Outside of the classroom and labs, students engage with mentors and participate in developing, presenting and even publishing research alongside industry leaders, alumni and faculty.
Collectively, the campus and classroom environment complements the intensive course load and content. "To quote our founding president, Dr. Edna McDuffie Manning, 'Everything in this environment supports academics,'" said Pam Felactu, OSSM director of development. "Students live together; they study together. And the faculty are constantly available to help them keep up and keep moving forward to attack that college-level curriculum."
Two-thirds of the OSSM faculty hold doctoral degrees, and they hail from elite universities like Columbia, Georgetown and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Within the last five years, the school has lost a third of their staff due to state budget cuts. The remaining staff salaries are supplemented through stipends, and still, some teachers are working full-time, schedules on part-time paychecks.
"This school is still operating at the same world-class level it has since day one because of the dedication of our faculty and staff," Felactu said. "For our teachers, it's not just a job. It's a way of life."
The Noble Research Institute, with 110 doctoral-level scientists from more than 25 different countries, knows all about bringing the brightest minds from around the world together. As an organization dedicated to advancing modern agriculture through technology, supporting science and mathematics education is critical. Since the school's inception, the Noble Research Institute has awarded the school $670,000 in grants, most of which support OSSM faculty and help supplement salaries during one of the most trying eras of educational funding in the history of Oklahoma.
"We recognize that the future of agriculture depends on young Oklahomans and their passionate pursuit of science and mathematics," said Mary Kate Wilson, Noble Research Institute director of granting. "We also recognize the need for committed and compensated faculty to educate the next generation of innovators in medicine, technology and agriculture."
Through the relentless dedication of OSSM staff and the donations of private foundations like the Noble Research Institute, the future of science and math in Oklahoma remains hopeful. The school hopes to continue to achieve successful faculty retention and encourage graduates to return to serve the school and state that gave them so much.
Chris Shrock, Ph.D., graduated from OSSM in 2000 and is now the dean of students. Like so many graduates, Shrock has returned to serve his alma mater. Alumni often return to teach, tutor, present to students or assist OSSM by living in and maintaining the dormitories. "I feel a great sense of gratitude for the OSSM experience," Shrock said. "I'm proud to give back to the school that launched my career."
He's not the only one.
To date, the school has produced 1,407 graduates, many of whom have gone on to impact Oklahoma. A recent independent economic impact study showed OSSM and its alumni generate some $40 million in economic activity in Oklahoma each year, and that number is growing with every graduating class.
"OSSM is a strong contributor to the local economy," Felactu said. "Our students feel a connection to their home state. While they may go out of state to further their education, they often come back to Oklahoma to begin careers. The state is working so hard to get high tech and scientific business to come to Oklahoma. A key piece of that is having a trained and educated workforce in those areas. OSSM contributes directly to that effort, and we couldn't do any of it without organizations like the Noble Research Institute."