Alec Scacchetti has always had an innate ability to solve complex problems.
At birth, when he was born prematurely, doctors marveled at his uncanny ability to fit objects in their proper-fitting holes. At home, he's been known to fix broken equipment that frustrates all of his other family members, including his computer scientist father.
And, last year, tasked with building a chair out of nothing but cardboard and tape that could support a person weighing up to 300 pounds, he was the only student to receive a perfect score.
"It's sort of incredible how this stuff just immediately comes to me," the 17-year-old junior from Burnt Hills said this week. "I don't even know how I do it."
Scacchetti's aptitude for problem-solving is the kind of trait area educators are hoping to hone as the region prepares for a new wave of jobs requiring a strong background in math and science.
Part of that push is a program that Scacchetti and about 40 other Saratoga County students participated in this week called SEMI High Tech U.
Started a decade ago by officials in Oregon, where the computer-chip industry has long had a presence, the program is moving into the Capital Region as educators and business leaders work to build a pipeline of students who can fill new high-tech jobs.
The three-day intensive program incorporated hands-on math and science projects and brought in professionals from high-tech employers such as GlobalFoundries that, organizers say, make the connection between high school chemistry courses and real world jobs.
"Kids take math and science and ask why," said Lisa Anderson, vice president of the SEMI Foundation, which hosts the program around the world.
"We consider this a career exploration program because it gives kids a sense of what they can do with these skills and gets them focused in time to get prepared," she said. "We know that if they don't get prepared now, they're going to get left at the gate."
The program is one of many recent examples of a growing impetus to educate area students in math and science.
Creating a buzz
Around the region, educators have been scrambling to adapt their curricula - adding programs like nanotechnology and clean energy - to entice more students into math and science and reverse a long exodus from the subjects.
Programs bridging the divide between classroom and workplace have been created to get students thinking, as early as middle school, about their career track.
The Ballston Spa Central School District is in the vanguard when it comes to readying students for the changing workplace, officials say.
The district has added classes in sustainable design, biotechnology, nanotechnology and clean energy and created programs such as robotics to provide hands-on learning experiences that engage students.
The district recently partnered with the Saratoga Springs City School District to offer students a chance to spend half of their school day taking math and science-related classes at Hudson Valley Community College's TEC-SMART building in Malta.
The first-of-its kind program will ramp up next fall and allow two dozen students to accumulate more than 20 hours of college credit before they graduate.
Diane Irwin, the Ballston Spa school district's science coordinator, said the program already has a waiting list.
"I think students are hearing the buzz and also realizing there is a coolness factor to this," she said.
Kevin Cahill and James Crist, students at Corinth High School who participated in this week's SEMI High Tech U program, are examples of the shifting perceptions described by Irwin.
Cahill, a sophomore, said he is considering a profession in astrophysics while Crist, a junior, said he might like to be an aerospace engineer - professions they say offer a compelling mix of intrigue and security.
"I feel like space is really going to explode," Crist said, during a break in the program this week. "Plus, it's just the coolness of it, and the idea of really pushing the limits."
The challenge now, officials say, is harnessing that enthusiasm and turning it into something sustainable.
Preparing for the future
Educators say efforts to improve math and science have, to date, been largely done in isolation, but more coordination is needed to assure the efforts can be sustained.
To help, the Empire State STEM Learning Network, based at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, is coordinating efforts around the state to improve math and science education.
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math and the effort was prompted by the belief that U.S. students were falling behind in those fields.
Margaret Ashida, the project's director, said a growing number of schools like Ballston Spa are making great strides but more public engagement, school and government leadership and public-private partnerships are needed.
"The dream is to see effective STEM education in all districts in New York," she said.
One key will be the continued collaboration between schools and business leaders, she and other officials said. Because fewer public dollars are available and employers need of well-trained students, both sides stand to gain from partnering, they say.
Among those who will be looking for students with math and science acumen is Clint Ballinger, who helped lead the SEMI High Tech U program this week and is the owner of Troy-based Evident Technologies.
The 10-year-old company makes nano-sized semiconductors used in night-vision goggles and light emitting diodes and is working on new applications that could turn heat into energy.
Ballenger said he could make another five hires before the end of this year, and he hopes to continue on that pace for years to come. The students in this week's program, he said, were on the right track to find work with a company like his.
"I have to say, I've been really impressed," he said. "They know their stuff and will call you out if they think something's wrong. It's a very tough group."
At the end, a job
Those at the end of the process - college graduates - are showing that those who concentrate on math and science can find success even in a down economy.
At HVCC, which opened its new Malta campus last year to focus on clean energy and nanotechnology, all of the 14 students graduating this month with an associate's degree in semiconductor manufacturing found work before commencement.
The placement is unusual given that only slightly more than half of those who graduated from college between 2006 to 2010 say they are working full-time, often in jobs unrelated to their fields of study, according to a survey released this week by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.
The number of students who will enter HVCC's associate degree program next semester is expected to double, and officials have created a new certificate program to help accommodate the demand.
The program will be open to students who hold an associate degree in electrical engineering or have a strong background in chemistry and physics.
"People are starting to believe," said Phil White, the dean at HVCC's School of Engineering and Industrial Technologies. "There was a while there when there was a bit of a doubt, but now the message is getting out that this is real and people are interested."