Michael M. Piccirillo and his colleagues in the Saratoga Springs City School District are working to make parents aware of local STEM-related educational and career opportunities "so they can help guide their children toward these jobs."

Jul 11 2011

From STEM to Star

How to spark student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.

Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York, has become a hotbed of nanotechnology in recent years – a trend that's affecting how its schools teach subjects such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Soon after GlobalFoundries chose the area for its next generation of chip-making plants, other nanotech companies followed. When GlobalFoundries' $4.6 billion factory opens in Malta, N.Y., next year, it will employ 1,500 highly skilled workers. And it's just one of many local tech businesses seeking science-savvy employees.

It's for this reason that the Saratoga Springs City School District (SSCSD) and others like it are literally working overtime to find and fuel the next generation of computer scientists, says Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education Michael M. Piccirillo.

Last fall, the eight-school district, along with its local Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), launched Saturday Seminars, a series of classes to boost student interest in STEM careers. For a couple of hours over four weekends, approximately 80 fourth- through eighth-graders take hands-on courses in robotics, engineering and other STEM topics.

Getting to students early is key. "If you want your kids to take Project Lead The Way courses in high school, you need to get them interested in how engineering, math and science all integrate," Piccirillo says. (Established in 1997, Project Lead The Way delivers a STEM curriculum to 4,000 middle and high schools nationwide.) "You need to start at the elementary level, where they're old enough to appreciate it, but it's still early enough for them to get interested in these things as possible careers."

The district also works to educate parents about the career opportunities offered in their community. "You can go to TEC-SMART, the new Hudson Valley Community College campus next to the GlobalFoundries site, and come out of the chute making $60,000 a year," Piccirillo says. "We're trying to make parents aware of this so they can help guide their children toward these jobs."

Engineering the Future

Organizations as varied as Intel and the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have called attention to the shortage of qualified graduates available to companies that are hiring. And although data from the Computing Research Association's 2009-2010 Taulbee Survey suggests that the number of students seeking computer science and engineering degrees has increased over the past two years, it's still well below its 2000 peak.

Part of that decline may be attributable to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). According to Dr. Francis Q. Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), NCLB put a heavy emphasis on improving test scores in basic math and reading, leading many districts to cut back sharply on the teaching of "hard" science (the natural, physical and computing sciences) in elementary and middle schools.

The blueprint for a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has specific provisions concerning the teaching of hard science, including the training of 100,000 teachers in core STEM subjects. But reforming ESEA, let alone funding new initiatives in an era of contentious budget battles, is far from assured.

To speed the process, the Obama administration has launched public/private initiatives to boost STEM literacy, including Educate to Innovate, Change the Equation and Race to the Top. These programs actively recruit private-industry participation and encourage best practices in science education at state and local levels.

But money for these programs has just begun to flow, so it's too soon to know how effective they will be (see sidebar, "Show Us the Money"). In the meantime, districts looking to boost their STEM programming are turning to private programs such as Techbridge, which encourages girls to pursue careers in technology and science.

Techbridge operates 16 afterschool programs in three Bay Area school districts, says Linda Kekelis, its director. Funded by charitable organizations and companies, Techbridge annually gives more than 400 girls in grades five through 12 hands-on experience with real-world science projects and opportunities to connect with mentors from the high-tech industry.

John Glover, former chief operating officer at American Indian Model Schools in Oakland, Calif., says AIMS introduced Techbridge at one of its middle schools two years ago. "It's been a huge success," he says. "Techbridge introduced the girls to career paths they may not have known existed. They got to tour eBay and Google and see what [those] jobs are all about. Now, they're really excited about what science has to offer."

Public Education, Private Funds

Linda Preminger, a sixth-grade math and science teacher at Washington Manor Middle School in San Leandro, Calif., also helped implement Techbridge at her school, one of 16 in the San Lorenzo Unified School District. But she wanted a program that boosted the science and math IQs of all of her students – not just the girls.

To that end, Preminger started the SparkClub, a yearlong series of afterschool sessions where students learned about STEM topics through hands-on experiments. Sadly, the program was discontinued after its funding ran out.

"Every kid needs hands-on science experience," she says. "If science isn't inquiry-based, the spirit of ingenuity and curiosity that's so much a part of the engineering learning process tends to go away."

Preminger spent 25 years working for private industry before going into teaching. She developed the idea for SparkClub and wrote its grant proposal during a summer 2008 fellowship with Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education (IISME), a nonprofit that aims to transform education via partnerships between schools and private industry. The experience gave her a real-world view of the gaps between what students are learning in the classroom and what employers really need.

"One of the first things I learned was that they need employees who are fluent in multiple languages and are good at life skills, such as team building," she says. "We don't typically teach students how to work as a team because most of us haven't grown up in a classroom environment where developing our mastery of a curriculum was based on working as a team."

Although afterschool programs may spark interest in the hard sciences and help drive students toward high-tech careers, they alone aren't enough. "We need to think about the whole system," NSTA's Eberle argues. "There are benefits to connecting students to their communities and communities to their schools, but that may not be building the capacity of our schools to do a better job."

NSTA's position, he adds, "is that we need to focus on the system, as well as the parts. We're in a hole right now, and we'll have to work pretty hard to get out of it."

Show Us the Money

As of April 30, 2011, California schools had used just over 87 percent of the federal funding the state received for educational improvements via the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), but $1.1 billion of its total allocation remained unspent. Florida and New York, meanwhile, still had nearly $1.5 billion and more than $2 billion, respectively, in unspent ARRA funds.

"There's still a lot of money to spend," confirms Dr. Jennifer House, president of RedRock Reports, which matches school districts in need of technology purchases to sources of funding. "It's pretty shocking."

Overall, U.S. states have spent approximately 75 percent of the stimulus money they've been granted, according to EdMoney.org, a nonprofit site supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that tracks state-by-state stimulus spending. For example, the Obama administration's Race to the Top program has awarded $4.3 billion in grants to states that demonstrated best practices in revitalizing schools. But much of this money has been locked up in controversy over provisions that tie the disbursement of funds to student performance on standardized tests.

Meanwhile, time is running out, as many of these grants expire after Sept. 30, 2011.

"There's been a bit of paralysis about how to spend the stimulus money," House explains. "There are a lot of requirements for transparency – to say exactly where the money is being spent – and the public gets quite interested in that. That stalled a lot of the buying. But you can bet the public [will] be even more angry if Oct. 1 comes around and they find out their school district had $3 million available that it didn't spend."

To find out how much unspent ARRA money remains in your state or district, visit EdMoney.org/data/schools.

<p>Gary David Gold</p>