By DeeGee Lester
When looking at dreams and opportunities in life, most people have a natural tendency to hesitate (“I’m not sure about this”), procrastinate (“I’d better wait until a better time”) or sabotage themselves. Stratford STEM Magnet High School sophomore Jack Utley is not one of those people.
The son of Michael and Tracy Utley, he was homeschooled through elementary and middle school and early discovered the appeal of science. “I’ve always liked math and science,” Jack said. “It’s my way of thinking and I’m really interested in biological science, which is the science of living things. I definitely lean toward plant/cellular biology – anything microscopic.”
As he prepared to enter high school in Metro, he was originally slated to attend Hillsboro, but after being placed on a waiting list, he switched to Stratford STEM Magnet, which was located across the street from his home. From the beginning, he hit the ground running.
“I was one of the few freshmen to select the ISR (Interdisciplinary Science Research) pathway,” Jack says. “It’s really great and I love how they focus everything on science.” He was particularly pleased to see that Stratford went beyond the typical classroom focus to include regular interaction with Vanderbilt scientists. “I knew that ISR was associated with Vanderbilt, but I didn’t expect Vanderbilt scientists, such as Dr. Tiffany Farmer and Dr. Kimberly Mulligan, would be available in the classroom and be helping us out almost every day (through the university’s Center for Scientific Outreach). We normally have a least one scientist in the classroom.”
Utilizing Project Based Learning, Jack and his classmates conducted a variety of experiments, including one on water quality. The program included field trips to the Metro Water Department Treatment Plant and to the Drinking Water Treatment Plant and field/classroom experiments on testing for chemical levels in the water.
Jack next grasped an opportunity to participate in Stratford’s Project Expo as well as the MNPS Project Expo at Trevecca Nazarene University. His project involved a computer software gaming design and he created a game with real world physics. As a freshman, he captured a first place award in the Business/Marketing/Technology category.
His biggest opportunity came when Stratford Academy Coach Dr. Jennifer Berry sent him an email announcing applications for a summer internship at Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Software Integrated Systems (ISIS), which offers internship experiences at both high school and college levels. “After Dr. Berry sent the email to me, she arranged an interview with Brandon Knight, the high school coordinator for ISIS. I was pretty surprised when I was selected as the youngest intern for the program”
The high school project focused on the creation of a software design and circuit boards for bicycles to improve bike safety. The team of 11 students worked every day from 8-12, throughout the summer. “Toward the end, we were putting in longer hours,” Jack said. “The students were in charge of the entire project. I had team experience with robotics, so that was not new, but it gave me more opportunity to work as a member of a team. I worked with bike lights and spent a lot of time soldering,” he laughed. “But I also spent time working with the software to allow the lights to do patterns.”
As he begins his Sophomore year, Jack looks forward to chances for more internships and other opportunities, including his second year as a school Ambassador, meeting with potential students/parents as well as representatives from the community and around the US who visit the school. He is often called upon to make presentations about Stratford’s STEM programs and the value of MNPS Academies. “I’m accustomed to speaking and it’s never really scared me, but I think I’ve gotten better at speaking to groups; particularly groups of adults.”
The many opportunities have simply whetted his appetite for more. “I believe that STEM is the best education for college and career preparation. I want to continue with Stratford’s ISR program and follow up with a major in biological science in college.” He’s still unsure of his college choice with almost three years of high school before him.
His advice to other students: “I want everybody to have interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and to work hard so that they can have a good career that makes the most of their education.” As Jack continues through high school, all sySTEMS are go for him to launch a successful future.
A 1968 graduate of Lewis County High School, DeeGee Lester serves as Director of Education at the Parthenon. Her articles have been published in children’s magazines and journals. She is author of three books and co-authored a two-volume pictorial history of Sumner County.