Engaging STEM activities take many shapes such as learning how the Pythagorean theorem applies in architecture and home design, exploring the relatively simple process of creating alternative energy by harnessing the wind, and testing a chemical formula in its proper everyday context.
At its best, that’s what STEM is – the integration and application of science, technology, engineering, and math in a relatable context that piques curiosity and builds a foundation for success at the next level, whether secondary education, skills training, college, or a career.
Hands-on, student-centered curriculum carried out through common equipment, materials, and software is a powerful means of capturing and keeping students’ attention. What student wouldn’t want to engineer a balsa bridge, construct and launch a water-propelled rocket, program a robot that they built, create physical models to simulate DNA and gene splicing, or calculate and compare densities of different substances? Even better, they can do all of these things in pairs, teams of four, or even groups of six to sharpen their cooperative learning skills.
Educators are in search of STEM curriculum solutions that engage students, are truly cross-curricular, and meet many of the Common Core State Standards. At the same time, they’re trying to implement programs that garner a stamp of approval from local business and industry leaders who have high hopes for their future workforce.
In the Eastern Region of North Carolina, education officials have done their homework by involving business and industry leaders in the selection of hands-on STEM and Algebra curriculum that eventually will benefit numerous school districts and cultivate 21st-century skills so desperately needed in the workplace.
Steve Hill, the executive director of STEM East (a branch of the economic development initiative known as the Eastern Region in North Carolina), is at the forefront of this innovative STEM push at the middle, high school, and postsecondary levels.
“Historically, education has worked in silos. What we’re trying to do is put all these people at the table, including universities, community colleges, and private business, and we’re trying to let the economy tell us what we need to be teaching,” Hill said. “We’re trying to adjust our track at the middle and high school arena and then align that with programs at the community colleges and universities.”
The anticipated end result is a homegrown workforce steeped in skills most needed in local factories, plants, offices, and construction sites. Local business leaders have been working closely with Hill, a former school administrator, to ensure that the proper STEM-based programs are set up in area middle and high schools. Tom Vermillion, Kinston, N.C. security systems business owner, heads up the STEM East board of directors and is quick to admit his personal interests also double as community concerns.
“If Lenoir County grows, that can help my business,” Vermillion said. “Individuals buy homes and need alarms. They have businesses that might need cameras and access control. Just the fact that we would not be a shrinking economy but a growing economy would help me.”
When comments like that are made in a room where career and technical education directors and other school administrators are present, the message does not fall on deaf ears. A recent addition to the industry lineup in Kinston is Spirit AeroSystems, an international aerospace leader. The company’s operations director, Rick Davis, quickly became a prominent figure in the education community, joining Vermillion and other business leaders in asking that students receive the skill exposure and training needed to hold engineering, assembly, design, and other positions in the company’s massive plant at the Global TransPark complex.
“We know that our future workforce right now is being educated within the school systems in Lenoir County, Green County, and Pitt County and will be attending the community colleges in the area and the colleges within the state,” Davis said. “We became very interested in any initiative to improve the technical skills within those school systems and university systems.”
As the acronym implies, STEM is cross-curricular and therefore requires buy-in from all spots in the academic lineup. With superintendents and principals fully supportive of the STEM East initiative, teachers are getting on board.
“I can tell you that from our math and science departments, this has been supported by everyone,” said Francis Altman, West Craven Middle School Principal. “There has not been a single teacher not excited and supportive about getting a STEM program into this school.”
The STEM program at West Craven and other middle schools in the region is composed of a select series of Pitsco Education topics through which students work in pairs to complete hands-on activities in topic areas such as electricity, biotechnology, forensic science, applied physics, alternative energy, robotics, and rocketry, among others. A Pitsco Algebra lab that takes a blended approach (concept and career focuses) also has been put in play at a regional middle school.
Strong student engagement is reflected in a lack of disciplinary issues and high rates of satisfaction from teachers and students alike. Says Haley, a seventh grader at Havelock Middle School: “It’s more fun; it’s more hands on than reading out of a book in science class. And it’s fun to work with somebody. It’s a lot easier than doing it by yourself.”
As the leader of the STEM East initiative, Hill says an overarching goal is to turn out students with strong 21st-century skills. “We want kids who have the ability to think through problems and do it on their own. This is what business leaders are asking. They’re not asking kids to come out knowing a different formula or to know these facts or to know what date this happened. They’re asking, ‘When you get a problem, can you evaluate the problem, work through it, and ask questions? Can you ask intelligent questions?’ They’re looking for these types of skills that kids in these labs have to develop to get through the modules and to work them out.”
The Tar Heel state, a first-round Race to the Top awardee, is not alone in seeking STEM excellence. Educators in neighboring South Carolina have been developing leading-edge programs for a few years, even seeding the fertile ground of elementary schools. Greenville Public Schools, the largest district in the state, opened community-based A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering two years ago. Curriculum Director Tom Roe was tasked with researching and implementing project- and inquiry-based engineering curriculum. Among his selections were LEGO® Education robotics and Pitsco crew-based Missions at which students work in crews of four.
“The LEGO units are building the foundation with knowledge and understanding of simple principles within science,” Roe said. “Then the kids in turn use that knowledge because they’re going to have to have it during the larger engineering units themselves. Everything actually builds, and it’s put in a particular sequence on purpose.”
As for the cooperative learning that is necessary when students work in teams of four, Roe noted, “Doing research and talking with engineering firms, that’s something they said they’re looking for. They’re looking for people who are team players and know how to collaborate, that have those skills.”
Regardless the level — elementary, middle, high school, or postsecondary — educators have the same endgame in mind when they implement a STEM solution: develop students’ skills and interests so they eventually feel confident in their ability to grow in a career that helps strengthen the local, regional, and state economies.
The all-important first step, though, is to establish and support a STEM program that engages students and helps them understand the relevance of their education.