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Redesigning STEM

Districts around the country are finding innovative ways to lure students into science and math education.

In Massachusetts, a group of gifted middle school students are studying robotics with MIT undergrads. In Idaho, government researchers are helping teachers find new ways to make science "real-world." And junior high schools in California are using engineering principles to transform the way they teach. Ask anyone: STEM-science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education-is the game-changer for American schools.

Why now? According to some recent high-profile studies, American students are falling behind in science and math. The National Science Foundation reported in January that the United States' ranking internationally in science and math scores has decreased in the last few years, with Japanese and Singaporean students, among others, edging out Americans in geometry, algebra, and other subjects. If these trends continue, it could mean fewer scientists and engineers in the country's future. "[I]mproving education in math and science is about producing engineers and researchers and scientists and innovators who are going to help transform our economy and our lives for the better," said President Obama when he unveiled his administration's Educate to Innovate campaign in November (see sidebar).

Inadequate STEM education in a troubled economy is arguably nothing less than a national emergency. It's little wonder, then, that the Obama administration's latest budget proposal calls for boosting STEM spending as part of an overall $3.8 billion increase in education funding. And many districts around the country are looking for ways to beef up their own STEM programs—and they're finding innovative ways to go about it.

Some districts are supplementing their math and science curricula with outside programs run by universities or government agencies. Some schools are revamping their curricula from top to bottom, across all subjects. Still others are teaming up to attract STEM grants, to provide better education for the maximum number of students. But it takes focus, discipline, and collaboration for a school or district to pull it off-the very same skills that STEM education teaches students.

MIT Mentors
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge is known worldwide as the one of the premier universities for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Through MIT's STEM Summer Institute and mentoring programs, sixth through ninth graders are exposed to a world of math and science that many of them have never known before.

During the winter months, program manager Erin Salius visits schools in the Cambridge, Boston, and Lawrence areas, asking teachers and administrators to recommend outstanding students for the five-week summer program, where students are taught advanced courses by MIT students mentored by experienced teachers-from algebra and biology for entering sixth graders, on up to precalculus and even robotics for older students. One big plus: For students—and schools—it's absolutely free, paid for in large part by private foundations. It's an easy way for schools to provide cutting-edge STEM education. "Our aim is to work with kids who are underserved in some way, and haven't had exposure to what a career in science or math can lead to," says Salius.

Susan Trotz, a former guidance counselor at Mildred Avenue Middle School in Mattapan, says the programs had a good effect on students there who took part. "I felt like they could step up their game, and do much better at our school after their experience at MIT," she says. Now a guidance counselor at the James M. Curley Elementary School in Jamaica Plain, she aims to gets kids from that school involved as well.

About 80 to 90 students enter the program each summer, and those who complete it are invited to take part in an academic-year mentorship, in which the students have weekly contact with MIT students, and meet with them for monthly brunches to do activities. One aim of the mentors is to introduce students to professors, researchers, and the MIT community—and generate enthusiasm for a career in the STEM fields. "Their main goal is to say, ‘Listen, I'm at MIT. I'm making my dreams happen, and I want to make sure I can help you do the same thing,'" says Salius.

Training Teachers
Brenda Greenhalgh, who runs the precollege education programs at the U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in Idaho Falls, not only seeks to expose students to STEM-related technologies and careers-she also works to help train teachers statewide.

INL has a range of programs geared to engage teachers and students. Its teacher internship program teams K–12 teachers with scientists and technical experts for an eight- to ten-week internship, exposing them to real-world research in fields such as engineering, biotechnology, and energy. INL also has grant and award programs geared toward specifically expanding in-school science, math, and technology curricula in the state.

INL is currently working on establishing two STEM centers, in the northern and central parts of Idaho, to provide four-day workshops for teachers. They would meet INL technicians and researchers, gain college credit, and take STEM-related classroom materials back with them to teach students and train other teachers. Districts need to pay for transportation; the rest is free.

Another INL program, called Energy for Educators, aims to emphasize exciting ways to teach scientific concepts. One recent event showed teachers a fun way to simulate neutron scattering in a nuclear reactor—using a glass case filled with mousetraps and ping-pong balls. Teachers were sent home with kits to create their own hands-on experiences, and share them with other teachers. As with the MIT programs, there's an explicit aim to help create future scientists. "[Teachers] will take kits back to their schools to enrich their teaching, so that their kids will maybe want to go into that kind of career," says Greenhalgh.

Designing STEM
Some schools are taking a hands-on approach. The Bayside STEM Academy, a middle school in San Mateo, California, switched to a STEM-oriented curriculum in 2008. Sixth- through eighth-grade students are taught a core curriculum along with a rotating wheel of STEM courses, which can include classes in architecture, acoustics, and other subjects.

The school has a creative approach to STEM, due in part to its unique relationship with the nearby Stanford University Institute of Design. Engineers from the university train students in "design thinking," a hands-on, collaborative method of problem-solving. It teaches students to analyze information, get input from other students, and build and test prototypes to experimentally approach problems. Teachers also are trained in the Stanford process-even those who aren't math or science teachers—in order to integrate STEM-related thinking into the entire student experience. "It's fast, and it teaches empathy and teamwork," says Principal Jeanne Elliott. "It teaches skills we need to teach kids anyway, but it has a real-world use."

Elliott recommends looking for teachers who are comfortable in multiple disciplines. Historians who are technologists, say, or artists who are engineers. "You have to have people who are really excited about thinking and learning from a mathematical perspective, and find that fun," she says. "That's a special teacher."

MAKE-it Happen
Two years ago, three small districts in Mercer and Auglaize counties in rural Ohio—Fort Recovery, New Bremen, and St. Henry—came up with a novel approach to kick-start STEM education for their students. They banded together and applied for a grant through the state, providing them with hundreds of thousands of dollars to expand STEM training for teachers and buy specialized equipment and curricula. The initiative is called the Mercer/Auglaize K-8 STEM Program of Excellence, or MAKE-it.

Like the Bayside STEM Academy, make-it embraces a problem-solving approach, and teachers focus on collaboration and teamwork. The seventh- and eighth-grade students use this approach to work on a major project using design software, computer-controlled machine tools, and vinyl cutters to design and create their products. Local businesses and universities partner with the school, offering engineering expertise, providing students tours of facilities, and judging projects at periodic "STEM fairs."

MAKE-it expands on the Project Lead the Way program, a career and technology curriculum already in place at the high-school level. Fort Recovery High School principal Jeffrey Hobbs is impressed. "They put in the new STEM lab, and they're doing some terrific things, some great projects, that will give the high-school numbers a shot in the arm," he says.

Nancy Knapke, the former principal of Fort Recovery Elementary School, and a key player in the grant process, says STEM education is invaluable, not only for schools, but also for students' lives. "We're a small, rural area, but we want our kids to be as well equipped going into the world economy as kids anywhere, who might have greater opportunities in other ways," she says. That's a goal that all STEM educators should aim for.

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