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Score a STEM-ulating Education in Elizabeth City

This specialized academy in eastern North Carolina prepares students for jobs in in-demand fields.

By Teree Caruthers on March 1, 2022

NEAAAT’s project-based learning helps students develop critical soft skills, such as problem solving and teamwork in Elizabeth City, NC.

Schools are the backbone of Elizabeth City’s workforce development strategy, preparing students for local, in-demand jobs by equipping them with the specific skills businesses need that will lead to successful careers after graduation.

One school, the Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies (NEAAAT), is helping bridge the skills gap in STEM-related fields, such as engineering and health sciences, and the region’s growing aviation, aerospace and defense industries.

“These economic engines create many untapped opportunities for students in the region to work locally and create a need for workers skilled in STEM areas, including the related fields of data science, health informatics, cybersecurity, robotics and engineering,” says Kim Mawhiney, NEAAAT’s director of STEM.

Bustling Economy

The region features a burgeoning market for solar and wind power generation, a growing health care sector powered by Vidant Health and Sentara Healthcare, and a significant agricultural economy supported by family farms and companies such as Avoca Farms, Perdue Chicken and Enviva Biomass. It is also home to the largest U.S. Coast Guard base.

Project-Based Learning

NEAAAT, which is a public charter school for grades 5-12 that was founded in 2015, has grown from 120 students to more than 700. In fact, the school’s growth prompted a recent move to a 63,000-square-foot facility located in the former Southgate shopping mall near downtown Elizabeth City. The school employs project-based learning to help students develop critical soft skills, such as problem solving, teamwork and communication.

“As automation, artificial intelligence and other technologies advance, workers will have to be able to quickly adapt to new tools and systems to stay ahead.” says Andrew Harris, NEAAAT CEO. “They’ll have to pull on a wide variety of knowledge and experiences to solve problems and to identify opportunities, and they’ll need to know what to do when they don’t know what to do.”

“The future of work will require people who can work in teams, sometimes across geographies, to manage projects
and accomplish tasks.”

Andrew Harris | NEAAAT

NEAAAT prepares students for the future of work through real-world, interdisciplinary project-based learning, Harris says.

“They are held accountable by peers, hiring and firing just like in the workplace,” he says. “They’re using digital tools to work in teams to create real-world, meaningful products and prototypes. They’re presenting to authentic audiences – working professionals, not just their teachers – and they’re consistently challenged to think deeper and to develop solutions to the problems of today and tomorrow.”

Students learn aircraft maintenance in North Carolina.
College of the Albemarle

Ready for Work in Elizabeth City

Harris says when students graduate, they will have earned some college credits (through a dual enrollment partnership with College of The Albemarle and Elizabeth City State University), a full internship with at least 160 hours of on-the-job experience and 200 hours of community service.

NEAAAT works collaboratively with local businesses and community partners through its Business Alliance program to develop and maintain specific career pathways for students.

Mawhiney says through these partnerships, businesses can directly impact the quality of graduates entering the workforce by assisting in their preparation.

“Our Business Alliance members ensure our students succeed by hosting them in internships or hosting our coaches in externships, where they can find the connections to their curriculum,” she says. “Businesses expose students to real-life work situations and model the importance and value of the quality and rigor of STEM-related education throughout our school.”

The school offers pathways in such high-demand areas as advanced manufacturing – through which students can earn certifications – aviation, robotics and engineering, and health sciences.

“We offer specialized courses in aviation, and we’re a national pilot school with every aviation course we teach being AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) certified. We’re the only high school in N.C. to offer our students the MSSC (Manufacturing Skill Standards Council) certifications for advanced manufacturing,” Harris says.

NEAAAT’s project-based learning helps students develop critical soft skills, such as problem solving and teamwork in Elizabeth City, NC.

Smart Starts Power Future

He says skills building begins as early as fifth grade at NEAAAT. “We have design thinking as a core course, and through design thinking, students learn how to tackle problems and come up with solutions all while learning skills that are aligned to those career pathways.

A student in fifth or sixth grade will learn about NASA and what it takes to live in space, but then in high school, they’ll start to learn about those aerospace jobs that exist locally,” Harris says. “Our intent since inception has been to try to fix the talent pipeline by creating opportunities that will over time build a more highly skilled workforce.”

Higher Education in Elizabeth City

Students have access to three excellent higher education institutions.
Elizabeth City State University
This historically Black college enrolls more than 2,000 students and offers 28 undergraduate programs and four master’s degrees. Areas of study include aviation, computer science, engineering, education and military science.
College of The Albemarle
COA was the first community college in North Carolina. Today, COA has its main campus in Elizabeth City along with three satellite locations.
Mid-Atlantic Christian University
This private college’s fields of study include biblical studies, applied linguistics, cross-cultural ministry, and leadership and administration. MACU has dual enrollment agreements with ECSU and COA.

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