Sigma at Charlottesville High School is more than STEM. It is a powerful and unprecedented approach to education which leverages the latest technologies in providing enriching and meaningful educational experiences for students across all disciplines. There are no “Sigma students” at CHS; all students and teachers have access to the Sigma Lab resources, enabling them to turn their ideas into reality.
The Sigma Lab at Charlottesville High School opened its doors in 2014, and with it came new engineering and computer programming courses specifically designed to promote technical literacy, engineering skills, problem solving proficiency, and group cooperation.
These courses take advantage of the new facilities at CHS and introduce students to many aspects of the modern professional world, including computer programming, computer-aided design (using SolidWorks), and advanced manufacturing. The courses are also designed to meet the diverse needs of the CHS student body. Pathways range from CATEC’s partnership with tech leader CISCO to dual enrollment classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College to a five-year engineering program that has sent students to the country’s top-ranked science and engineering universities.
Aside from enrolling specifically in an engineering or coding class, other classes use the Sigma Lab across the curriculum. Students in the theatre department have designed and created die cuts to create stage lighting effects. Young artists have combined circuitry into their creations. AVID classes have done laser-cutting projects to familiarize themselves with the resources and classes offered in the program. And the world-famous science club BACON (Best All-around Club of Nerds) uses the Sigma Lab (and even helped design it).
Designed by BACON members, then-CHS engineering teacher Dr. Matt Shields, and Moseley architects, the Sigma Lab is the embodiment of the creative process. The lab is an award-winning suite of spaces designed for collaborating, designing, coding, building, evaluating, and more. It’s not often when visitors from an elite university engineering program enter a high school lab and say, “I’m jealous.” There are collaborative spaces with whiteboards and meeting tables. Adjacent to those is a computer lab for design and fabrication facilities, including 3D printers, a CNC machine, and a laser cutter. Further back is a mechatronics room, dedicated to adding the smarts (microcontrollers, electronics, programming, etc.) to designs, and a machine lab with a laser cutter and more. The space is a tool for all students and teachers at CHS to turn their ideas, no matter how crazy, into reality. The redesign of the space won recognition from Virginia Education Facility Planners and the Council of Educational Facility Planners Southeast Region.
Open to all students without any application process, the Sigma program offers a five-year engineering program that can begin as early as 8th grade at Buford Middle School. The first-year engineering class has no math prerequisites or application process, signaling that all students are welcome and can succeed. The first two years of the program are offered as career and technical education courses; the third and fourth years are dual-enrollment classes that give credit through PVCC. The fifth year of the program is a self-driven senior capstone project.
Alongside the engineering courses are a fully developed pathway of complementary computer coding courses that can culminate with industry-recognized CISCO credentials (via classes at CATEC) or with AP computer science classes. In addition, CHS offers math through both years of AP calculus, as well as every available AP science class.
The Sigma lab is the capstone of the commitment of Charlottesville City Schools to create an inclusive model for all our students. Our iSTEM program works in all our schools (elementary through high school) to make cross-curricular connections that can help all our students gain familiarity with coding, the engineering process, and the STEM world. Beginning in middle school, students can take introduction to engineering classes or the same Engineering 1 course that is taught in the Sigma program at CHS. Engineering classes at Buford and CHS are increasingly diverse, bringing in girls and other students who have not traditionally been represented in STEM fields.
The Sigma program at CHS, and the Sigma Lab in particular, would not have happened without the generous inspiration and support and of many, many people.
Here are just a few who supported the initial development of the lab suite, which opened in August 2014: