(Editor’s Note: Daniel OConnell is a senior at Cardinal Gibbons High School)

DURHAM, N.C. – The North Carolina School of Science and Math (NCSSM) has a lengthy history of challenging many of the state’s brightest students with interesting, advanced and specialized material.

Selected juniors and seniors convene from around the state and enroll at the two-year residential school. Specialized classes such as climate change biology stimulate students to explore specific areas of science and math.

However, many other talented students invest themselves in their local schools, families, and communities through service, athletics and friendships. They bond with their community and feel compelled to give back.

In 2008, NCSSM extended the school to encompass more students by starting an online program (NCSSM Online). It allows students to stay in their public school and take NCSSM classes for free. NCSSM is connected to the North Carolina Research and Education Network as are all K-12 pull school districts in the state. The high-speed connectivity provided on the network through MCNC allows NCSSM education to be available to all students in North Carolina.

The “blended” program includes weekly live web conferences, assigned textbook readings, Facebook Groups for student interactions, databases for research, and independent servers for particular classes (such as computational chemistry) in addition to weekend classes on campus once a semester.

A full day of classes at school followed by a challenging honors or AP level class at home faces NCSSM Online students.

Jacob Casper, for example, took six classes every day at Pine Forest High School in Fayetteville before completing honors bioinformatics and computational biology at home.

“The class was more engaging than my normal classes due to the complexity and breadth of knowledge of the instructor,” Casper said, adding that he valued the relationship with his instructor Dr. Gotwals and admired the instructor’s love of the material and interest in students.

Malik Reives also fostered his love for science at NCSSM taking environmental geology and applied chemistry his junior year after school at Northern Guilford High School.

He enjoyed the specialized classes and the detailed instruction and labs. Google Earth and NC LIVE proved to be particularly helpful resources for his online classes. The innovative tools prepared him for college and helped indoctrinate him into the global on-line community.

Reives connected with the instructor over the weekly webinars where the students had a chance to ask questions and respond to the professor from the convenience of their own home. The interaction he enjoyed between the instructor and other students across the state prompted him not only to learn but analyze and question the material for a deeper understanding. Most importantly, he felt empowered to reach his full potential and learn to expand his intellectual boundaries.

NCSSM Online has allowed the school to reach out to students who have limited advanced educational opportunities at home. The change of scenery (on-line vs. standard classroom) allows some to bond deeper with the instructor and focus on the material.

Rather than trying to hide in the back of the class, students are actively engaged in front of their computers. Many students surpass the realms of high school and introductory level college classes; they aspire to apply their talents to complex real-world applications from forensics science to climate change biology from the comfort of their community.