As the final bell of the day blared through the halls of Riverside High School, hundreds of backpack-toting students bee-lined for the parking lot and an afternoon of freedom.

But sophomores Ginny Milsap and Michael Gilmore headed to the upstairs science lab, donned safety goggles, and began burning peanuts.

"We're trying to see whether cashews or pecans have more power," said Gilmore, lighting a pecan affixed to a paperclip on fire. Milsap adjusted a charred soda can filled with water that dangled above the nut and got her thermometer ready.

"The more the temperature of the water changes, the more energy there is in the nut," said Milsap. "So we measure the temperature before and after and see which has the biggest change."

Gilmore and Milsap are just two of the more than 800 students across the state gearing up for the final phase of their annual science projects as part of a special college-going program called Health Sciences and Technology Academy (HSTA).

Education officials say HSTA is one of the best-kept secrets in West Virginia education and think they've hit on a home-grown solution to help clamp down on major problems in the state: a low college-going rate and a lack of professionals with science and health backgrounds.

After hearing a constant drumbeat about a shortage of scientists and health-care professionals in Appalachia, Ann Chester founded the Health Sciences and Technology Academy in 1994 to try to tackle a piece of the problem.\


She created HSTA -- a health, science, technology, and math program based out of West Virginia University that provides special programs for high school students from rural, minority, and first-generation college backgrounds.

Students in HSTA attend weekly meetings after school, complete and present an annual science project and attend intensive science and math summer camps each year. If students keep their grades up all four years in the program, they can receive tuition waivers to any public university in the state.

"It's a way to capture our potential youth to get them to work in the state at successful levels," said Chester. "And the community owns the program."

Since the program began 17 years ago with just a handful of students, it has expanded to 26 counties throughout the state and serves about 800 students.

Lawmakers and higher education officials in West Virginia agree that the state needs to seriously invest in ways to increase its college-going and retention rates or face a crippling hole in the workforce in upcoming years.


According to the Higher Education Policy Commission, only 59 percent of West Virginia high school graduates went to college in 2010. That's below the national average of almost 64 percent.

Students and teachers involved in HSTA say the program could become a model to reverse some of the numbers. Just look at the statistics, said Chester.

Ninety-six percent of students in the HSTA program attend college. That's in a state where only 43 out of every 100 ninth graders complete high school and head to college.

The key to the program, Chester says, is instilling a college-going culture into students from the moment they enter high school and providing them with fun activities that cater to their interests in science and math. The end goal: tuition waivers to any public university in the state.

HSTA costs about $2 million a year to operate and is funded by a number of nonprofit organizations and state money.

The biggest hurdle the program faces, officials say, is spreading the word.

"It's hard to recruit students, but if they go through with the program, you can't beat what you'll receive at the end," said Tara Veazey, a HSTA teacher at Riverside.

Kourtnie Kozak, a sophomore at Riverside involved in HSTA, only heard about the program from a family member. She said no one at her middle school of Dupont told her eighth-grade class that HSTA was an option in high school.

But she's glad she became involved.

"I knew I wanted to go to college and was interested in science, so it seemed simple," said Kozak.