Feb 04 2013

Schools Need to Invest in More than Words to Tap STEM’s Transformative Powers

In a bid to help students prepare for a more competitive, globalized economy, more districts are doubling down on STEM.

The cries from the battlefield about the need for more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) soldiers have been ringing loud in clear in education circles and in the media.

The “crisis in STEM education,” as Inc. magazine describes it, has made the American workforce less competitive with rising nations like China and India, which churn out high-quality STEM students en masse.

This has lead school districts to emphasize STEM education as a top priority, and so far, many schools are heeding the call.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that Chicago Public Schools, the City Colleges of Chicago and The Starter League would work together on a pilot to offer web development courses at high schools and community colleges.

Partnering with The Starter League — formerly called Code Academy — is a critical component of Chicago’s strategy. One of the gripes many companies have about high school and college graduates is that they’re not prepared for work in the real world. Far too often, STEM education focuses on the theoretical and not the practical.

The Starter League CEO Neal Sales-Griffin explained why this web development project would be different in a report from the Center for Digital Education.

While some students already take computer science classes, that doesn't mean they're prepared for a job in the field, said Sales-Griffin, who graduated from Chicago Public Schools.

The theoretical foundation that schools give them is important. But they also need to be up to speed on what software developers do each day. And more often than not, many software designers teach themselves or develop skills on the job instead of getting introductory training in school.

Although web development may not seem like a groundbreaking endeavor, it could provide the nurturing environment for future break-out development talent at Twitter, Google, Facebook and more.

STEM Has to Be More than a Marketing Campaign

While the buzz around STEM education has grown recently, school districts have long recognized the need and value of grooming students in these disciplines.

Take the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, N.C., for example, which opened its doors in 1980. Now in its 33rd year of operations, the school’s alumni contribute nearly $500 million to the state’s economy, according to the school.

Creating awareness about the value of STEM education is a great first step, but a marketing campaign alone can’t and won’t keep students interested over the long haul.

A recent report from U.S. News and World Report on results from the STEMconnector and college planning service My College Options found that 1 in 4 high schoolers were excited about pursuing a STEM major or career. Unfortunately, the study found that nearly 60 percent of students who choose STEM education at the beginning of high school change their minds by graduation.

So what can be done?

Perhaps school districts would benefit from focusing STEM education on engagement and relationship building, rather than the subject matter.

PBS recently reported on <a href="http://www.mckinleytech.org/" target="_blank">McKinley Technology High School</a>’s closing of the achievement gap. The Washington, D.C., school boasts a 92 percent student proficiency rate in math and English, which is remarkable since it serves a high-minority and low-income population. In the past, students with these backgrounds have not been exposed to or performed well in STEM education.

Principal David Pinder believes the key to his school’s success is the standard that he sets for his teachers. He looks for three areas of expertise when he hires teachers at McKinley:

  1. Content
  2. Pedagogy for students of all levels
  3. Relationships

By building meaningful relationships with students and approaching learning in unconventional ways, Pinder believes any student can become a STEM star.

"The kids have a chance to do math and science in a different way," said Pinder in the PBS story. "There's plenty of opportunities to build relationships with their friends because it's project based."


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