Baxter Academy - An incredible first year

Baxter Academy student Erin Whitney talks about her team’s engineering project as student Caedan Holdan, left, and engineering teacher Jonathan Amory listen

Baxter Academy student Erin Whitney talks about her team’s engineering project as student Caedan Holdan, left, and engineering teacher Jonathan Amory listen

This blog posting is brought to you courtesy of Jonathan Armory of Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, Maine.  Baxter is “a rigorous, college-preparatory high school promoting student ownership of learning through inquiry and project based curriculum focused specifically on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)” .  I have the privilege of being an advisor to Baxter and this was their first year of operations.  When Jonathan sent me the below update via email, I asked permission to post it in its entirety.  This is a wonderful example of a school built by teachers with inquiry leading the learning.  I look forward to visiting Baxter in the Fall - to check out ‘Flex Friday’, meet the students and teachers, and experience the launch of their second year, first hand!

Here is Jonathan’s update (below) - be sure to check out the 'Flex Friday' proposal template here:

Baxter had a wonderful first year.  Here are some examples:

  • Maine charter commission’s 90-day audit called the school’s academic climate “as good as it gets.” The commission will come out with its year-end audit  later this summer, but the members who recently visited the school told us that they had been blown away by the students’ work and were extremely impressed.  
  • State and local Democratic political leaders strongly opposed Baxter’s opening last year, as did the local newspaper.  After sustained outreach to community leaders, Baxter is building wide support in the broader community - just take a look at the local paper’s glowing front page article @  Members of the state’s Democratic leadership and community leaders have toured the school, recognize the value of its educational model, and accept Baxter as a positive fact on the ground. 
  • Our Flex Friday program - a day dedicated to student projects - has been hugely successful.  Every student takes on a year-long project, mostly working in groups but some solo, and spend every Friday working on them.  Here’s a brief synopsis of the 3 projects on which I was an advisor: 
Wind Blade Results.png
  1. Baxter’s Wind Turbine team (5 freshmen, 1 sophomore) convincingly won the Maine Windblade Challenge, beating 39 teams composed mainly of juniors and seniors; [here] is a graph of the turbine power scores for the top 10 teams.  Their success was due in large part to the Excel model they created to determine optimal blade shape.  To build that model they had to learn how to program macros, generate fourth-order polynomials describing lift and drag coefficients of various airfoils, calculate a motor’s torque requirement, and perform a crude form of numerical integration. They also devised an innovative active pitch mechanism that feathers blades to the correct angle for the relative wind direction over a range of wind speeds, using the blade’s angular momentum to pull the blade out along a curved track on ball bearings.
  2. The Submersible ROV project was a collaboration between my former students at Freeport High (now juniors and seniors) and 3 Baxter students (freshmen and sophomore).  The ROV is designed to meet needs articulated by marine biologists at Bigelow Labs, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and Woods Hole.  It will reach depths of 250’ and speeds in excess of 5 mph; have 5 degrees of freedom, stereoscopic cameras, lights that can produce 10,000 lumens, and an expandable payload bay to house various sensors; and an unique tethering system connecting the ROV to a surface buoy, which allows long term station keeping and remote operation.  You can find their on-line blog documenting their work @
  3. The CNC team (all freshmen) started by building a stand and enclosure for our 4-axis CNC router, and then designed and built a dust collection and misting system.  Once the machine was fully operational, they learned how to generate and program toolpaths with MasterCAM.  They then produced parts for other student projects, including the molds and active pitch parts for the wind turbine and numerous parts for the ROV.  They also designed and build a rocking chair that is impossible to flip over. 

Students love working on these projects, and as the year went on asked for more and more time to work on them.  I know you understand the power of project-based learning, and we saw first-hand how effective it can be when applied across an entire school.  I gave a Tedx talk in Bangor about this educational model, which can found @  We are working on a project template all students will be asked to use, to make them think comprehensively about their projects and develop the beginnings of a business plan; the current draft is @      

  • Baxter has one of the highest percentages of students with IEPs and 504s of any school in the state, as well as many refugee and home-schooled children.  Many, if not most, of the students did not feel engaged at their prior schools, describing themselves as “nerds” or “misfits.”  Baxter’s educational model is working for this diverse community. The school has built an inclusive sense of community, and it has been amazing to see the love students have for the school.    
  • We are a standards-based school, and have created a set of 10 expectations (the Baxpectations) that all students must meet before graduating. They can be found here. All students create a portfolio of their work to demonstrate progress towards the Baxpectations, and use the portfolio to guide student-led parent conferences.  It has been impressive to see how this framework has enabled students to reflect upon their own learning.  By and large, students use their project work to demonstrate progress toward these expectations.

[Here] is the school’s year-end report to the Baxter community, which tells last year’s story well.  Not everything is perfect, but we have a great team, and work to identify problems and devise creative and effective solutions.