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Stay competitive with STEM

December 11, 2015 Article 9 min read

Excerpt from "The technology imperative: Staying ahead of the curve in the classroom."

At the height of the recession, when unemployment reached levels not seen in decades, thousands of jobs still went unfilled. The reason? The majority of those positions were in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, and American workers were simply not qualified to fill them. Surveys have shown that America is falling progressively behind other nations in STEM — yet those are the areas that are most closely linked to global competitiveness.

These stark findings have served as a wake-up call for American educational institutions. With consensus growing that STEM-focused learning and problem-solving skills need to be incorporated into curricula as early as elementary school, educators and administrators have taken on this challenge with passion and dedication. Plante Moran spoke with six of those committed professionals at three school districts across the country: Barrington School District 220, Ann Arbor Public Schools, and Garland Independent School District.

What are some of the goals of your program?

  • Barrington
    Even at the elementary school level we want to make sure students actually understand the engineering process. We want them to be critical problem solvers and know the different areas of analysis and synthesis and troubleshooting. Getting kids to think differently is something we as curriculum directors are addressing in every single content area. At the middle school level, we’re hoping to see an increase in enrollment in our high school STEM classes. And we also hope our programs will encourage more kids to get into STEM fields, especially girls and minority students. The priorities are awareness, enthusiasm, and developing critical thinkers.
  • Ann Arbor
    We want our students to be seamless problem solvers. This needs to become a part of their profile as a learner. We want them to be comfortable working independently or in groups and to be able to do research and bring it back to a real-world problem. Even soft skills — like not being afraid to fail — are important for our students to master. And the only way we can teach any of this is by doing it.
  • Garland
    We want students in the STEM magnet program to earn a distinguished achievement diploma and achieve one or more “endorsements” in one of the concentrations (i.e., interdisciplinary, medical and technical studies, engineering, architecture, multimedia, telecommunications, computer science, and comprehensive science).

What’s unique about your program?

  • Ann Arbor
    First of all, we have a STEAM program, which means it incorporates the arts as one of its cornerstones. We believe it’s important to grab students where they are — for some that’s math and science. But there are a lot of STEM careers that are really STEAM careers because they’re design-oriented or they call for hands-on composing and creating. Sometimes that’s what grabs our students’ attention, and we can bring them in from that angle.We also use a framework with three parts. First comes Engage, where we sprinkle STEAM practices such as design and real-world learning into every classroom, so that every one of our almost 17,000 students is exposed to them. We even extend STEAM into our recreation programming so that students as young as three will begin to learn STEAM practices. For the Connect component, we implement programming across the district that allows students to engage with STEAM learning for a part of the day, week, or year. Finally, there’s Transform, the components of STEAM integration in our district that are designed from the ground up. In these programs, such as our magnet high school, students are steeped in STEAM learning for their entire academic experience.
  • Garland
    One of the things that makes our STEM magnet school unique is our staff. They are extraordinary, and for many of them, teaching is a second career after years spent in industry. That’s one reason they’re able to build strong relationships with community partners such as hospitals, medical centers, engineering and manufacturing firms, and community colleges. We can provide students with real-time, real-world application of the concepts we teach — and sometimes, that makes all the difference.
  • Barrington
    We have a partnership with the University of Illinois that allows students to get automatic acceptance into their engineering program after successful completion of Project Lead the Way courses. PLTW is an organization that has developed a national curriculum for STEM subjects that schools can purchase.

How do you measure the success of your program?

  • Barrington
    In high school, after each course, the students take an assessment that’s graded and normed against scores of students from all of the schools that are participating in PLTW. Students who earn a passing score have the possibility of earning college credit for those courses, so we track that. We’ve also partnered with two other high school districts and a community college in the area to build a report in our student information system that will track career pathways. It will provide data on how many kids are entering in STEM fields, getting STEM certifications, or moving on to four-year schools.
  • Garland
    We look at the number of kids who complete the program and how they do in state and national competitions. We also look at how they compete against other students at the same level who aren’t in the STEM program. Enrollment in Advanced Placement (AP) courses is another important metric, particularly how many students are successful in these courses, and how many are coming out with college credit. We also get a report every year from the National Clearinghouse that tracks our students for the first two years after graduation, including where they’re going to school. We’re hoping in the near future to have a better system that would allow us to track our students for up to six years.
  • Ann Arbor
    We look at student engagement, attendance, and enrollment. All are up dramatically since we started the STEAM program. We look at achievement and assessment outcomes and compare them with outcomes before the program. We also measure parent satisfaction — we’ve had really positive parent feedback.

How are you getting funding?

  • Barrington
    At the elementary level, the Barrington 220 Educational Foundation does the upfront funding. Ongoing costs and staff after that are funded through the school district. The situation is similar for the middle school programs: there’s initial jumpstart funding from the foundation, and the school district steps in after that.
  • Ann Arbor
    We need to be very creative. For example, our dedicated STEAM school rotated into a building where enrollment was low, allowing us to attract a much larger student body, which was then eligible for funding. We use our Title 2 professional development funds to train teachers. We’re using our technology bond, and we recently received a vote from the community to enhance technology in the district. In addition, we’ve received grants from our educational foundation locally, as well as from the state. Several schools have won grants from General Motors to implement PLTW. We’ve also partnered with our educational foundation, which has raised $300,000 to help purchase the actual PLTW program.
  • Garland
    The majority of funding comes from the school district. Special gifted and talented programs receive some federal funding. We’re also reaching out to businesses and hoping to secure some additional funding for our programs, and there’s some grant money available for initiatives like STEM-focused summer camps.

What are some of the things you’ve learned about implementing these types of programs?

  • Ann Arbor
    First, a STEAM initiative doesn’t have to be big and fancy. The important thing is that you build it with the fundamental practices of STEAM learning in mind. Sometimes, it’s just a small adjustment. Rather than writing book reports for the teacher, have the kids write them and post them online where they can actually get feedback from the real world. Some of these are simple yet deeply profound changes that help our students to see themselves as creators of information, not just consumers of information.Second, embrace the mindset shift. Bring in educators who are willing to put themselves in a place where they’re teaching alongside students, not in front of them. We need to find resources to help students go inthe directions their guiding questions want them to go.Third, don’t make it about one-to-one technology or technology for technology’s sake. It’s about shifting teaching and learning, not about placing a device in the hands of a child. Access technology when it serves the learning: sometimes that learning can take place in a fairly low-tech environment.Fourth, don’t let money be the reason why or why not. With our worldwide ability to communicate, you can have really high-quality exchanges without spending a penny.Finally, make sure you bring along your community from the very beginning. The educational process may be very different from what parents expect, so you need to involve them.
  • Barrington
    Schools need to be looking at programs that strongly integrate the engineering practices from the new Next Generation Science Standards. These standards are very well-written and clear, so there needs to be more than a superficial alignment — students should not be doing cookie-cutter experiments where they know the end result. When they’re given a problem, they need to be using engineering and design practices to solve it. It’s also very important to have teachers who are very well-educated in each of the STEM areas to serve as instructors. That means professional development is critical.
  • Garland
    First, don’t try to grow too fast. Make sure what you put in place has high value. Then grow it over the years. Make sure you know the students and the community you’re targeting — it will affect your curriculum. Then find experts to be your teachers, as well as individuals with knowledge of the workforce — that’s been a key to the success of our program.It’s also extremely important for students to have a sense of what they want to do when they get out of school. So provide counseling and tools to help them figure it out. Also help them know what the options are. Survey businesses and even the Chamber of Commerce about what they anticipate for the future of the community.This kind of focus should start as early as middle school. In fact, middle school is a critical time in a student’s career, because it’s where schools often start losing students when it comes to STEM. So you have to create ways to hold their interest. Because ultimately, we need to prepare kids to be able to thrive in the workforce of tomorrow.STEM/STEAM programs are changing the way students interact in the classroom and preparing them to compete in today’s global environment. We applaud the districts investing in this approach and look forward to reading more about the impact the programs are having on outcomes for students — in the classroom, in career choices, and in the workforce of tomorrow.

Plante Moran would like to thank the following individuals for sharing their time and insights:

  • Barrington, Illinois, School District
    Dr. Becky Gill, director of elementary curriculum, and Kelly Hansen, director of secondary curriculum.
  • Ann Arbor, Michigan, School District
    Dr. Jeanice Kerr Swift, Ann Arbor superintendent of schools, and Merri Lynn Colligan, executive director, instructional technology & information services.
  • Garland, Texas, School District
    Dr. Glenda Williams, principal of the North Garland High School Math, Technology, Science (MTS) Magnet, and Dr. Kristyn Edney, advanced academics administrator.

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