At the time they would usually be taking their midterm exam, physics students at Searsport District High School were in the auditorium sending matchbox cars looping, launching and colliding on homemade tracks. They weren't skipping class, the stunt project — through which students demonstrated momentum transfer and circular, rotational and projectile motion — was the exam.

"It's about energy, it's about transfers of energy and friction. It's like a big stew of physics concepts," said senior Julian Cross, who plans to study electrical engineering in college. "We take the math and the equations that we learned and apply them to real world circumstances. The math we used to figure out how much energy we need [for] the car to go around the loop is the same kind of math somebody who's designing a roller coaster would use."

Physics teacher Claire Guse said she has been repeating this activity each year because through it students learn more than by studying for a paper and pencil exam.

"They learn practical things, like the importance of building in margins of safety, the differences between building materials and how to reduce energy losses and improve efficiency," she said. "Plus, the stunts are a whole lot of fun."

Projects like this, which took place Feb. 6, are part of a project-based learning (PBL) initiative that began this school year. The initiative is made possible by a 2013 grant from Maine Community Foundation that allowed the school to work with the Brock Institute to train teachers and with Island Institute to implement PBL in many classes in the middle and high schools. Searsport District High School Principal Brian Campbell said it will be expanded across core courses and electives in the next school year, and that in 2015, in integrated and interdisciplinary courses, students will engage in four- to six-week learning expeditions that will require field work for a more authentic experience.

For Campbell, PBL is a part of a larger vision for the school to develop a strong science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) component that would engage students and encourage them to pursue careers in those fields.

The school has partnered with Bangor United Technology Center to pursue a federal Youth Career Connect grant, which offers money from H1B visas — through which foreign skilled workers in primarily technical fields can be temporarily employed by U.S. companies — to schools to prepare students for STEM careers.

"They’re saying by 2018 we’re going to be about 3 million skilled workers short for STEM fields," said Campbell. "Now we’re out recruiting immigrants to fill those spots."

Searsport District High School is well on its way to creating a robust STEM program. It has established partnerships with local businesses, such as Hamilton Marine, which recently donated  its seine loft to the Penobscot Marine Museum to be used for educational purposes for high school students; and with educational institutions which allow students to gain up to 27 college credits towards an associates degree with course work they complete in high school.

Furthermore, many of the PBL activities already being implemented are in STEM subjects and involve community collaboration.

"The teachers in the science department are really gung ho about it," said science teacher Dawn Staples-Knox.

Science teacher Maura DiPrete has her biology class do a project on human disease and the evolving strategies for detection, diagnosis, prevention and treatment, which culminates with a presentation and visit with scientists at Jackson Lab and College of the Atlantic. Her marine studies classes have studied coastal wetlands, monitored coastal vegetation and invertebrates, and participated in restoration of shellfish beds with University of Maine at Machias and the Searsport Shellfish Committee. Her marine studies students have also designed and built working scale versions of offshore wind-turbine platforms for the University of Maine DeepCWind competition, and an engineering class designs wind-turbine blades for that competition.

Staples-Knox believes that Searsport District High School is uniquely situated to have a strong marine-science program, within a community with much talent in marine fields. The yearly boat-building project, which involves local skilled craftsmen in teaching students how to build shellback dinghies — the sale of which funds the program — is a prime example.

"We can walk to the shore, and Sears Island is five minutes away," Staples-Knox said, adding that getting students out to do projects that are relevant to the local community members makes sense because "they’re the ones who are going to pay taxes; we should work to solve local problems that benefit them."

Staples-Knox is planning a project this spring which would set students to work on addressing the issue of the exploding green crab population. Green crabs damage shellfish and eelgrass beds, and in a statewide survey conducted by the Department of Marine Resources last summer, Stockton Springs had the highest numbers of green crabs in the state.

Future plans for Searsport District High School's STEM program include developing an aquaculture and hydroponics lab to grow kelp and bivalves; expanding on their partnership Waldo County Technical Center; expanding the boat simulator program; and renovating the seine loft into a "classroom on the shore," complete with a lab, a theater and space for humanities studies and art. The school is seeking funding for these enhancements and for the transition to becoming either a magnet, innovative, or district charter school, depending on the revenue streams associated with each designation, Campbell said.

But whatever the future holds for SDHS, project-based learning is here to stay.

"What I like best is that this approach is based on the nature of science: the curiosity, inquiry, discovery and refinement of idea that is at the heart of both science and learning," said DiPrete. "Whether the student moves into a job and career, or into college, they will rely on these practical skills and self-reliance."