A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Chris Burns: STEM initiatives hold promise to be among most successful of past 25 years

One the prevailing trends in education is the focus on STEM / STEAM learning (science, technology, engineering, art and math).

The attention to those skills permeated out of increased criticism from business leaders, based on students:

1. Lack of overall knowledge of basic academic subjects
2. Lack of soft or real life skills, including: expectations, interaction and teamwork, critical thinking skills and basic person-to-person communication
3. Unrealistic expectations about starting salaries and work ethic

Addressing these challenges will help ensure that students graduating high school and/or some type of post-secondary education, are truly prepared to enter the workforce in STEM related fields.

STEM projects and programs are taking place across the Commonwealth and the Nation. Kentucky was an early adopter of the idea and currently has a statewide Kentucky Girls STEM Collaborative. The organization is based out of the University of Kentucky and active in many parts of the state.

The collaborative uses a national model that is “structured to bring organizations together to leverage resources, share information and exemplary practices, and to plan strategically to expand STEM-related opportunities for girls.”

They are sponsoring activities and mini-grants around the state, as well as working with other STEM initiatives to reach as many students as possible. Several colleges and universities have also initiated and blended STEM learning into their own programs.

The Bluegrass Higher Education Consortium, an organization made up of 12 central Kentucky college and university presidents, is also planning an event to bring community groups together to focus on new ways to train students. The overall goal is to prepare them for success in the workplace and keep them from leaving central Kentucky after they graduate.

One of the ways STEM has proven to be successful is through experiential learning, which is gaining momentum in secondary education. Business leaders agree that job shadowing, internships and co-ops are critical for preparing students how they can apply classroom learning to real life situations. Many high schools are moving in this direction to give students an idea of what they will experience in the real world and how to use the skills they are learning, prior to graduating.

An example of how STEM can work in high schools came at Simon Kenton High School in Northern Kentucky several years ago. A math teacher had his entire class design, plan, measure, and then pour concrete for a sidewalk to connect the school with their sports complex. Students were engaged in every aspect of the planning and work. They checked their own measurements to ensure getting the right mixture of water and dry concrete, as well as the measurements of the sidewalk. Students began lining up to take the class because the experience was both hands-on and fun.

Businesses are also joining to provide time, treasure and talent. Recently, the Northern Kentucky Education Council developed the NaviGo Scholars Program. The new program has five business partners -Toyota, Duke Energy, Citi, The Bank of Kentucky and Heritage Bank. Together they selected 34 high school students from 14 school districts as the inaugural NaviGo Scholars. The students will spend significant time at these five companies to learn first-hand how business operates.

Another example is Cincinnati Bell, who has partnered with Taft High School in downtown Cincinnati since 2002, to ensure that all students take technology classes and have an opportunity to excel. Bell donates computers and cell phones to high achieving students and they helped build a curriculum in technology where Juniors and seniors can take computer classes in an area they may have an interest. Also, up to 10 students each year receive $5,000 scholarships to pursue technical degrees in college.

STEM initiatives are working their way in the middle school. Students as early as sixth-grade begin visiting businesses and shadowing workers so they can experience first-hand what a job will encompass. By starting at this age, it gives them time to view several different careers before they reach high school. At that point, the goal is begin to focus more on a particular track or interest. This would prepare them for post-secondary learning in their career field and help reduce the need for remedial training after high school.

Colleges are also getting involved to work closer with high schools and increase the number of students that are better prepared to enter.

The University of Kentucky was recently awarded a $1.9 million grant to improve retention of students in the STEM disciplines through a collection of initiatives dubbed “STEMCats.” UK is working with Bluegrass Community and Technical College to ensure help prepare and recruit students into STEM related fields.

In the end, if STEM can place a foothold on educating students and getting them interested in fields with huge shortages over the next decade, it will be one of the most successful education initiatives of the past 25 years.

1 chris burns

Chris Burns is director of marketing for CBTS and long-time education advocate. He is a member of the Bluegrass Higher Education Consortium and the Northern Kentucky Chamber Education Policy Committee.

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