Jul 03 2012

ISTE 2012: Partnering With Local Businesses to Advance STEM Education

In education, it's common practice to compartmentalize the four disciplines of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics): teach math in one room, science in another room, et cetera, and rarely shall the disciplines meet. Ironically, STEM is so deeply intertwined that it's practically impossible to innovate without all four elements working in concert.

In an interview with John Williams, chief technology officer for Nashville Metropolitan Public Schools, at the International Society for Technology in Education Conference in San Diego last month, Williams said that local businesses complained to district officials about the poor level of STEM education in Nashville area schools. Stated one executive, "We can't hire from the pool of students you're graduating because they do not have the science, technology, engineering or mathematics backgrounds we need for our technical fields." Executives who spoke with school officials said that to hire qualified workers companies recruit from outside the state! Williams agreed, saying even the school system has four IT positions it has been unable to fill with local talent.

It doesn't help matters that funding falls short of what is needed to make significant strides in STEM education and training. Frustrated, the system superintendent threw the problem back to the Nashville business community. He invited businesses to partner with local schools, a challenge the community has embraced. This year, Williams reported that all 16 high schools in his district offered sponsorships from businesses, from local credit unions to Country Music Television. Participating partners offer not only financial support, but human resources, too.

It makes sense. Businesses large and small have much to gain from the advancement of STEM education. A more highly qualified workforce means employers can hire more skilled applicants. Instead of recruiting workers from competing companies (a common practice in highly technical fields), employers can hire from within their local communities. This influx of talent means companies can spend less time training employees and more time focusing on innovation. For these reasons, Williams said, schools and businesses should aggressively seek and develop these mutually beneficial relationships.

Another step toward the advancement of STEM education is to make learning more personal by creating environments where students are encouraged to ask questions, discover and construct their own learning opportunities. Students, like adults, are more likely to invest time and energy in the concepts and ideas they care about most, whether it's solving a nagging problem, making a useful device or answering a burning question. If it's personal, people generally put forth the effort; otherwise, why bother?

Some schools are fostering inquisitiveness through the creation of "maker" spaces where students can build, tinker and create innovations. Maker fairs, robotics programs and other hands-on activities spur students to ask questions, try new approaches, make mistakes, reform and repeat the maker process.

When students encounter a roadblock in the design or construction phase of a project, the only way to proceed is to confront that roadblock head on. Teachers can facilitate this discovery by providing grade-level-appropriate resources that guide students to the answers they seek. More lessons need to be taught on-demand and on an as-needed basis -- not just because the pacing guide says it's time.

By partnering with local businesses and personalizing learning, schools will prepare students to do more than simply survive, together they will thrive.

For more on ISTE 2012, visit our ISTE 2012 Conference page.