Creating a pathway from the classroom to the labor force is part of the next generation of STEM education in Macon County according to program coordinator Jennifer Love.
The economic development commission (EDC) received an update on the STEM program’s progress in its first year and heard several ways that the business community can be more hands-on in the implementation of STEM in year two.
"Studies show that the jobs our current fourth-and fifth-graders will be seeking when they complete their education don’t even exist yet,” Love said. “We need to do everything we can to make sure they understand advanced problem solving, computer technology, basic programming and areas that will help them be prepared for the jobs of the future.”
Love noted that one of the areas that employers have pointed to as an increased need among new hires is in high-level problem solving.
“Employers are looking for grit and determination when it comes to problem solving,” Love said. “One of the things that I hear all the time is that if kids don’t understand something right away they give up and want someone to tell them the answer. STEM projects hopefully teach kids that it’s OK to fail and try again en route to finding the answer.”
In its first year, the Macon County STEM program has taken off.
According to Love, more than 100 students have taken part in regional robotics competitions, and dozens more have joined STEM activities in the classroom and after school. While students, educators and parents have all gotten on board with STEM, Love admitted that there is still a gap between classroom lessons and potential career applications.
To promote the better flow of information between students and employers, Love has begun looking at ways to show how STEM subjects are used in real-life occupations. There will be a STEM Career Fair on April 7 for Macon County students.
“We have 40 presenters coming in from across the region, and students will be allowed to sign up for three different classes in their field of interest,” Love said. “Rather than give the students a 10-minute snapshot of a career, we want them to be able to take 45-50 minutes and learn not only about the day-to-day of that career but also the educational requirements of that career and how they can get there.”
Love noted that among her five goals for the STEM program in the coming year is better career awareness. Also on the goals list are upgrading materials and technology, providing professional development for teachers, increasing enrichment opportunities and creating better professional resources.
“Teaching STEM is a different teaching philosophy altogether, and we want to prepare our teachers for that through professional development,” Love said. “Instead of being a ‘sage on a stage,’ a STEM teacher is more of a ‘guide on the side.’ It’s about helping kids figure out how to solve a problem and not necessarily laying out facts on a chalkboard.”
Love invited the EDC members and business leaders at the meeting to be part of the career fair or volunteer their time with initiatives like the Smoky Mountain Area Robotics League or the Science Olympiad. She also encouraged businesses in STEM fields that have internship openings to reach out as a way to connect students with career learning opportunities.
“We want to get kids into internships and career-building events early, because we don’t want to have a situation where a student goes through the STEM program wanting to be a nurse for, example, and then after doing a job shadow or unpaid internship decides as a senior that nursing isn’t for them,” Love said. “We want kids to learn about a potential career and be ready to pursue that career after they graduate.”
EDC member David Hubbs asked Love about the challenges in implementing a STEM program from scratch, specifically when it comes to end of grade testing.
“It isn’t easy to measure the success of a STEM program through the current testing because so many of the concepts don’t show up on a multiple choice bubble test,” Love said. “Now, hopefully, the problem solving and the critical thinking that students learn via STEM projects will lead them to be more successful on those tests based on their improved problem solving abilities.”
John Edgemon, general manager of Franklin Tubular Products, asked if there has been any way to aggregate the feedback from students and teachers in terms of what has or has not been successful to this point.
Love noted that there is a STEM survey that was given to sixth-graders at Mountain View Intermediate and Macon Middle, and to Franklin High School students at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year. That survey will be replicated each fall to see how students are progressing through the program and to gain feedback on participating instructors and specific STEM projects.
“You would think with STEM it would be just the science and math teachers that are excited about this, but I have had several language arts and social science teachers come to me and ask about implementing STEM in their lessons,” Love said. “We want to be in a situation where students say that they really learned a lot in this teacher’s class or that teacher’s class based on a teacher using STEM principles in their lessons.”
For more information about the Macon County Schools STEM program, visit http://www.macon.k12.nc.us/stem/.