(TNS) -- The Career Club at STEM Early High School in Henderson, N.C., is opening students' eyes to potential professions through hands-on learning.

Early High Principal Rey Horner and Career Club co-sponsors Stephen Jones and Mary Soriano recently talked to the Vance County Board of Education about the program and its impact on students. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

"Our goal is to really just give our students the opportunity of choice," Jones said. "They don't understand a lot of careers that even exist. So how are they supposed to prepare themselves if they don't know these programs are out there?"

The Early High School's STEM Career Club is part of an interdisciplinary study conducted by North Carolina State University that focuses on developing ways to promote and measure interest in and preparation for STEM careers and majors.

Horner said the after-school program is offered in partnership with the university and Conway, Rocky Mount and Warren County middle schools.

A three-year grant through N.C. State covers many of the expenses incurred by the program, including teacher training and transportation.

"One of the most important aspects of the program is accessibility of the program," Horner said. "We run three buses that go all over the county so kids have a ride home if they need a ride home. Most of the manipulatives that we use with the students are ours to keep, and that will help the program run when the three years run out."

Students have built drag racers powered by rubber bands and created inventions that use green energy, but they are always asked to take their work a step further.

"They get to build things, test them out and experiment with them — and see what happens, which is a big part of the program," Jones said. "It's not just do this, do this, do this. It's what happens if you do this, why did it do this, what else can you make it do? We're extremely pleased with how the program is going and the partnership with N.C. State."

Most importantly, Soriano said, the students are engaged.

"It isn't only that they are learning, but they are enjoying the time," she said. "It's not only the academic part but other activities."

This summer, students will spend some time at the partner university.

"They get to stay in the dormitories for a weekend and get to explore some of that STEM field opportunities that they might have in a college in general, and especially at N.C. State," Jones said.

Because the club is part of N.C. State’s research, the university is working with them to ensure the program is sustainable, including expanding the number of teachers administering the program, Jones said.

"They're extremely interested in getting all parts of the community involved in this," he said. "Our whole school knows about the program and we've explained to them what it is we're doing and why we're doing it. Because of that, this year, we've have two more teachers join the program."

Horner said the other participating schools are comparable in size, but the Early High School received an award for having the highest student participation.

"We have 70 students that are involved, but we have roughly 100 that applied," he said. "Unfortunately, there is a student teacher ratio that we have to follow."

Soriano said the success of the Career Club is the result of group effort.

"This is teamwork," she said. "We are working not only with the administrations but also with the other teachers, and they are supporting us all the time."

Vance County Schools Superintendent Tony Jackson said he's been doing some research and can't find a program like the district's Early High School anywhere in the nation.

"I think this is a marquee program for us, and they're doing a tremendous job," Jackson said. "I'm very, very proud of them for the work that's going on there."

©2015 Distributed by Henderson Daily Dispatch, N.C. Tribune Content Agency, LLC.