Transcription of Luke Shorty for the show High-Quality High Schools #302

Lisa Belisle: I have in the studio with me today Luke Shorty, who is the executive director of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics and a 1998 graduate from the magnet high school in Limestone, Maine. The U.S. News and World Report recently ranked the school as the tenth best high school in the nation for STEM education, the nineteenth best overall high school, and the sixth best magnet school in the nation. Pretty good stuff there, Luke.
Luke Shorty: Pretty exciting, I would say, for sure.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah. How does this feel for you as someone who graduated from the school in 1998 coming back and seeing this success?
Luke Shorty: A little bit of pride, not necessarily in myself and the work that I do but kind of in the state of Maine as a whole because the ranking really comes from the faculty we have at MSSM, the teachers from all over the state of Maine who prepared these kids for MSSM, and then the students themselves, really kind of rolling up their sleeves and immersing themselves in the curriculum we have at MSSM. Really, it’s pride for the state as a whole and what we’re doing in education is kind of the feeling I get when I see those numbers.
Lisa Belisle: Did this take you by surprise or did you think, “Wow, we’re pretty good. I think we could do well here.”
Luke Shorty: For the last couple years actually, we weren’t ranked due to some actual reporting standards they have for Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act like you can’t release so much data if your count is below a certain amount. The last couple of years, we weren’t within that threshold so they didn’t release the data. Previously, we had done pretty well with the rankings. I guess I am surprised that we broke the top ten, especially for STEM schools and magnet schools but I’m not surprised that we performed as well as we did at U.S. News and World Report’s ranking.
Lisa Belisle: STEM schools, I think most people are familiar with and we’ve talked about it on the show before but for people who aren’t, what does that mean?
Luke Shorty: It’s a great point. STEM schools are not schools that have to do with like stems of plants or anything like that but it has to do with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. You take the first letter of all those words and you get STEM and it’s been a pretty hot topic for the nation as a whole and for the state of Maine and actually speaks to a lot of foresight that Governor McKernan at the time had when MSSM was formed in 1994 to say, “I’d like a STEM school.” There was talk about putting an agricultural school up in Limestone when Lauren Air Force Base closed and it was Governor McKernan who said, “No, I want a science, technology, engineering and mathematics school up there.”
Lisa Belisle: I believe that some people are now talking about STEAM, where they add an A in there as well.
Luke Shorty: Yes, absolutely. I’ve also heard the acronym STREAM which the A in STEAM is for arts and the R in some schools stands for religion. IF you look at some of the private Catholic schools, they’re looking at STREAM and saying how do you put the lens of religion, morality, theology, in that whole aspect of STEAM? I found in education that the more you actually look into the universe around you, everything starts to blend together. Scientists, engineers, mathematicians, they’re creative people. That creative aspect is extremely important I think to the human being. Though it may be catchy to say STEM all the time, I think you can easily fit in the A for arts, STEAM, religion, I think when you really start delving into learning, you’re looking at the universe as a whole and all aspects of reality. I wouldn’t be surprised if you started seeing more letters popping up into this acronym as time goes on.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been reading some Edward Wilson and he was a professor, I think he may still be a professor at Harvard but he is a scientist who also talks a lot about the humanities and how science in its current form is relatively young but we’ve had the humanities for thousands and thousands of years now. So now trying to understand the intersection and what each can learn from the other is an interesting place to be in.
Luke Shorty: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, when a lot of people think of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, they’re probably thinking of the science and math, it’s right in our name, but believe it or not, we’ve got a very strong humanities program. The Aroostook County Teacher of the Year in 2016 was Michael McCartney, who is our humanities instructor up at MSSM and it’s important when you’re looking at science and mathematics to put it through that perspective of what does it mean for humanity? What’s the human aspect of this? I think you’re right, there’s this place where they kind of blend together like you had said. Humanities has been around for well, since humans have existed. That lens is an important lens to have on when you look at any aspect of reality I think.
Lisa Belisle: Let’s talk about the magnet school idea. This is also something that I think has certainly been within my lifetime, the last several decades, and increasingly more accepted.
Luke Shorty: Yeah. So the magnet school idea, from my understanding, especially the specialized science and mathematics magnet schools, really kind of came out in the mid eighties. There is a couple other magnet schools like MSSM that are residential. They’re in North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Illinois. We are the only one that is in New England that is a residential magnet school for science and mathematics. The key and the thought on that is that in our statute that creates MSSM, we’re supposed to exceed Maine state educational standards, right? You’re supposed to provide a curriculum that is above and beyond what students could get anywhere else in the state of Maine. Now if you look at all the school districts in the state, you may have one or two students who would be able to handle that type of curriculum. It’s not cost-effective to do that for every single school district in the state, so that magnet school brings that certain capacity and density of students that really make it cost-effective to offer that type of curriculum. That’s kind of the idea behind the magnet school is you’re attracting students from all over the state and beyond to really get an immersive, high quality, high end, robust educational experience.
Lisa Belisle: When I was growing up, it wasn’t to be someone who studied a lot or who was a little bit more academically oriented and perhaps into the maths and sciences. It wasn’t really the cool thing to do. Of course it seems like it’s become the cool thing, maybe I just missed it by a generation but I wonder if by bringing these students together, you actually validate this idea that what they’re doing is really important and really very normal and appreciated.
Luke Shorty: It’s interesting you say that. When I went to school there in the late nineties, there really was that sense of belonging where you get these students from all over who may not have found a peer group that resonated with their interests and what their passions were. When you get 150 students living together in a dormitory, sharing that passion, it really is phenomenal. You don’t just see it in the high school program. We have a middle school summer program. There are six weeks during the summer where we offer week-long camps for science and mathematics in the dormitory for ages 10 through 14 and you see it in these young folks who … You hear it from the parents all the time. When they go home, they’re like, “My son or daughter just wouldn’t stop talking about MSSM and all the friends and the people they met there.” You form this community, and this community that feeds off from each other where they’re like, “Wow. There are other people who are interested in what I am interested in and I never thought of things that way and really, that’s part of the magic of what happens as MSSM is that community that forms up in Aroostook County in the dormitory up there.”
Lisa Belisle: How do you feel like this helped you in your own career? Did this propel you forward in some specific direction because of the experience you had?
Luke Shorty: It’s interesting you say that because after I graduated from the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, I actually went on to study film at the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico. I had always been interested in the arts, speaking of STEAM, and it wasn’t until I was in Bozeman, Montana, at graduate school, that I realized how much of an impact MSSM had had on my life. It’s the first place I ever got an F, ever, in my life, and I shared this on Maine Live when we did that this fall and that was a shift. You lean yourself outside of your comfort zone, you have a view of who you are as a person. When that’s questioned, when you get bumped through that, that’s where a lot of growth happens.
I didn’t realize the amount of one, work ethic I developed at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, and two, the comfort of realizing I can fail and it’s not the end of the world. I can grow from this. There’s this idea out there about a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. At MSSM, I think it may be something that shook me out of a fixed mindset and put me more into a growth mindset. It may be not the trajectory like, “I’m now the executive director there.” At least as a person as a whole and how I moved forward through my life, through my graduation of MSSM to where I am today, those are some of the cornerstones that I think really had an impact on who I am as a person and how I react to the world around me.
Lisa Belisle: What was the pivot point and when did you decide, “Oh, I think I’d like to work in education?”
Luke Shorty: That’s a good question. Like I had said, I studied film at first and then I came back to Maine. I studied physics for a little while and then mathematics. Ultimately, I ended on mathematics which is a story in and of itself how math snagged me but why I thought about education is there’s a certain … It kind of blends the arts, at least the performing arts, with STEM with mathematics if that’s the subject you’re teaching which it was for me, it kind of blends those two things together so it was kind of this way of giving back to the next generation of folks to share my passion that I have about mathematics in general in a way that also was fulfilling to my interest in performance art I guess so to speak. You blend those two things together and you’ve got this beautiful type of magic that happens in the classroom where you may have a lesson plan all set up ready to roll but there are 30 something kids in the audience and they’re interacting with you and you never know which way it’s going to go and so it really kind of appealed in that way and I thought it was a wonderful way to give back to the next generation and share that passion I have with the beauty that is mathematics. That’s what got me into teaching at least.
Lisa Belisle: I guess I can’t leave that on the table then. Why math?
Luke Shorty: That’s a great question. I used to be really big into physics. It was my favorite science because it was like, “Oh, you can explain the whole universe in just those elegant equations, et cetera.” Then I took a higher mathematics course at University of Maine at Orono. It was there that you start delving into these ideas that are just mind blowing if you think about them. For example, Georg Cantor came up with this argument to show, “You know, some infinities are actually bigger than others.” You say, “What?” Not only that, there are an infinite number of infinities that can become than the infinities previous to it.” These ideas just kind of blow your mind that there are also things in reality such as the number pi, 3.14159265, it goes on and on forever, never repeats, is transcendental, but it’s everywhere in the universe. You take any circle and you measure its circumference, divide by its diameter, and you always get this number. There’s just this beauty in the thought space that is mathematics that allows you to really explore and go wild and creative and throw out these wild ideas and see how it all plays within this system of assumptions that you make about the universe around year. When I took that higher level math class, it kind of blew my mind and the rest is history. I just couldn’t get enough.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about growing up in Fairfield.
Luke Shorty: All right. I grew up in a small little town called Fairfield Center and I went to Lawrence High School. It was really nice actually growing up there because my mother’s family, we had our little house here and then across the little field was my aunt’s house and then my grandmother’s house and then across the street was my other aunt’s house and a little further down the road was my uncle’s farm. That was a really nice way of growing up because you always had some place to go, whether it was to your aunt’s house or your grandmother’s house, and it’s just a beautiful little area in the Kennebec Valley. It’s one of the places that … I mean, my parents still live in that house so it’s kind of a nice place to kind of go and hang out with family and kind of enjoy that space.
Lisa Belisle: It sounds very idyllic and yet you still chose to go up to Limestone which is … Got to be at least three or four hours away from your home to study.
Luke Shorty: It is. It’s about four hours north. That was actually … I mean, when I first went up there, the school had only been open for one year when I heard about it. I went up the second year in the school’s existence and to be honest with you, the school had kind of a rocky started. They never knew whether or not it was going to be open the following year, if the state funding was going to come in, how this crazy experiment was going to work out. There were I’d say about six of us from Lawrence that year who had heard about this place, heard of the amazing educational opportunities that were up there, and we all applied and kind of went together. That kind of helped a little bit with the transition. It’s a decision that I’m thankful that I made and that I actually went and took that trip up to Limestone. It was tough for Mom for sure, but I think they would agree with me that it was definitely worth the investment.
Lisa Belisle: You’re an interesting person in that you have all these different kind of tentacles to your interests and your personalities. The fact that you were willing to come down and be a Maine Live speaker, it wasn’t a one time thing. You had to come back and forth and back and forth and do training to actually do this speech that you gave last fall, and you came back down again here and I’m gonna just tell people, we’re talking and that you came in at 8:45 a.m. from the county. Why is it important for you to continue to do this sort of outreach? Why does it matter so much to represent MSSM in a positive way?
Luke Shorty: I think because one of the things is we are a small state as far as connections are but we’re a very large state geographically. I think sometimes when you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind. The first word in MSSM’s acronym is Maine. We are the Maine School of Science and Mathematics and I think it’s important for every citizen of the state of Maine to realize what an important and beautiful gift they have given to themselves as an amazing educational opportunity for the youth in Maine. We’ve got a lot of challenges facing us as a state, right? We are an old state, we aren’t very diverse, there are concerns about out migration, especially with young people. You hear all the time, “My gosh, how are we going to fill all the jobs that are going to be opening up from these retirements?”
I think it’s important that the state realizes that there are things that are going on that allow students and people to take pride in what their state does and say “How can we leverage this asset we have to take on these challenges?” I think the best way to make sure people are aware of that is to get out and let them know. I think this idea of two Maines I think is an unfortunate one and I think that whatever we can do to help dissolve that mindset, I think the better off we can be. I love to go out and talk with folks and share the experience I’ve had and the amazing things going up in Aroostook County because I think that’s important to the Maine people.
Lisa Belisle: How has Aroostook County and specifically Limestone changed in your opinion?
Luke Shorty: When I was a student there, I didn’t have a car so I didn’t know much of Aroostook County except for the mall trips we would take into Presque Isle every weekend. Going up with there a vehicle, it really has opened up my mind to the types of cultures that are up there in the St. John Valley with the French Acadians and the Quebecois who are up there and it’s just this amazing, beautiful place. I went to graduate school in Bozeman, Montana and they call Montana Big Sky Country and I feel like Aroostook County is Maine’s Big Sky Country. You go up there and you can see for miles and miles and miles and in that sense, that’s how Aroostook County has changed for me in the sense that I didn’t realize all the opportunities there and all the exciting things going on even across the border in New Brunswick over in Quebec … Quebec actually is closer to Limestone than Portland is. That’s kind of the big city for us is you go up and around to Quebec. That’s something that was new to me from when I was a student to now.
About Limestone as a whole, Limestone is a smaller town, believe it or not, than even when I was up there in the nineties. They are some of the most kind, caring and open individuals for the students who are coming up to MSSM. They’re going through a discussion right now on whether or not they want to withdraw from the regional school unit that they’re with and one of the things that’s come out of that is some really good dialogue between MSSM and the town and the town sharing their appreciation of MSSM and me sharing the appreciation that the students have with the Limestone community. In that sense, that’s one thing that hasn’t changed. Even though the town has kind of shrunk in size, that spirit they have of being welcoming and open to new faces and new people in Limestone hasn’t changed. Those are some aspects of how it’s kind morphed and evolved. That’s what that is I suppose.
Lisa Belisle: We know because U.S. News and World Report has told us that clearly your school is excellent. How do you know that your school is excellent? How do you know that you are succeeding as a school that is putting new math and science students out into the world to do good work?
Luke Shorty: A couple of ways. I think some of those, it’s always the kids, right? It’s always what are the alumni saying. How are they doing after they leave MSSM. What are some things that we’re doing as a school in order to break through some barriers that some students from around the state of Maine may have getting into higher education. If you look at the schools that the MSSM students are going to, you could use that potentially as a measure of success and we do have students who are going to MIT and Harvard and Oxford and all these other places but there are a lot that are also going to the University of Maine and I think to me that’s another measure of success if is you can keep students here in the state to see what opportunities the state of Maine has for them, whether it’s at the University of Maine or the Jackson Laboratory or down here in Portland if somebody is interested in marketing and advertising because we have students who even though they like math and science, are interested in those humanities. The more we can do with that, with our internship programs and stuff we do during our small January term, I think that’s a measure of success. How well are we connecting kids to the state?
We have a partnership with the University of Maine Presque Isle where students actually can get enough college credit through attending MSSM where you could graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. To me, that’s a sign of success because that’s two year’s savings on your undergraduate education which as many of us know is not getting any cheaper. U. Maine system has done a pretty good job with that tuition freeze for the last couple years that they’ve been doing that but at some point they’re going to have to consider do we have to bump tuition up?
Those are some of the symbols of success that I feel make us successful, where you can tap into young people’s passions, hold the bar high, and support them to reach that bar and then from there show them the opportunities in the state of Maine and make sure they’re going to a college that feels like a good fit for them, and stay in touch with them, right? Figure out what are you up to now. We had a huge reunion in June last year where we had 300 plus alumni, all come back up to Limestone. We had a tent city out on Trafton Lake. We filled both dormitories that we had at the time. It was quite a turnout to see so many faces from every single class from 1996 all the way to the graduating class of 2016. It was pretty cool.
Lisa Belisle: You graduated from high school about ten years after I did. I think you actually knew my brother Matthew. We’ve talked about this before because he was at MSSM very briefly. You and I are both native Mainers. We both came back to our state so we weren’t really part of … I guess we were a brain drain because we went away but we came back. When people talk about brain drain, what does that bring up for you?
Luke Shorty: Oh. That’s a good question because I think it’s important for people to go away and to come back. I think that’s important because when you leave an area, it’s again like leaving your comfort zone. You’re seeing different points of view, different ways of doing things, different cultures, and with that, you’re learning stuff through the lens of how you grew up in the state of Maine. Ultimately, you get this boomerang effect I think for the most part where people say, “You know, I’ve been all over the place and I haven’t found a place as special as Maine and so now I’m coming back.”
I think people need to … When they say brain drain, they may be thinking of the very short term. You graduate and they’re gone. Hold onto that a little while longer. Give it five, six, seven years, right? Give it some time and then tell me if brain drain is happening. Are people staying away? If they are staying away, then it’s time to kind of look at that issue and tackle it that way. I think to be honest with you, it’s becoming more and more frequent in my opinion that people are looking for short term solutions. Brain drain, it’s happening right away. There’s this difficulty with patience, right, because we’re in this place where oh, instant gratification on my smartphone. I tweeted something, somebody’s gonna get back to me right away. I think it’s important to look at the long game of it.
When I hear the word brain drain, it brings up a lot of questions to say well, what do you mean by that? What time period are you looking at? Then try to hone it down a little bit. Brain drain’s a fun little clip to throw out there but I think there’s a lot more questions to ask to try to figure out what exactly it is people are talking about.
Lisa Belisle: Spoken like a true science/math minded person, I would say.
Luke Shorty: Thanks.
Lisa Belisle: I guess your education has served you well.
Luke Shorty: I hope so.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Luke Shorty who is the executive director of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics which has been recently lauded by the U.S. News and World Report for really being very good in many different areas so congratulations to you and to all of the people who work to give an education to our students here in Maine.
Luke Shorty: Thank you very much Dr. Lisa. It’s been a pleasure this morning.