Prioritize STEM in Corridor

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: December 19 2013 | 12:01 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:02 am in
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By Allen Witt

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The “Creative Corridor” has gained momentum in STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) education these past few years. Our state and our Corridor school districts have invested heavily in STEM education to better compete in our global economy.

STEM is the only instructional area singled out for bonus points in federal Race to the Top applications. Last fall, the White House announced a federal initiative directing $500 million in dollars to STEM efforts. This doesn’t even count the money that has been committed to the cause from the State of Iowa, the National Science Foundation, NASA, philanthropies such as the Gates Foundation, Project Lead The Way and numerous corporate entities.

As someone who has worked in engineering and STEM education for many years, there is something satisfying about seeing the time, attention and resources being devoted to an effective education. The knowledge and skills learned through STEM instruction not only are important for the future rocket scientists and brain surgeons of the world, but are essential for anyone who hopes to hold any sort of gainful employment in the coming years. Coupling the necessary science and math with a STEM focus on problem solving, collaboration and critical thinking is key. Students are more engaged and more likely to graduate high school.

In the broad sense, STEM is an interdisciplinary field that demonstrates how the four components (and beyond) work together to meet the changing needs of a changing world. We can’t expect a math teacher to teach engineering or science. (And we mostly expect that “technology” is being taught through business departments that used to teach typing).

TRY HYBRID APPROACH

So what about a hybrid certification for secondary STEM teachers? It may be broader strokes than some would want, but it can be far more effective to connect the S, T, E and M in the current model.

Teacher externships through Workplace Learning Connection will identify private-sector firms stepping up in this endeavor. We need to do a better job of helping teachers communicate the relevance and importance of STEM education. Like it or not, students look to teachers who have walked the walk.

So what about teacher externships in STEM fields, where teachers take a week in the summer to shadow in local industry (paid time, of course)? They then can take these “real world” experiences back to the classroom, speaking truth to students about what is needed in the workforce and talking firsthand about the truly interesting opportunities that are out there.

And while we are at it, what about redoubling our investment in STEM internships for students through teacher externships through Workplace Learning Connection? As a Corridor, we are focused on increasing our high school graduation rates while moving more students into careers or postsecondary learning experiences. What better way to get high school students into internships, where they can explore job possibilities in the community, learn from those who do, and better understand the knowledge, skills, and degrees/certifications necessary to actually obtain the job.

When we talk about making the high school experience more relevant, what better way can we do that by linking lessons in the classroom today with lessons in the workplace today?

SIMILAR FOCUS

At the end of the day, STEM investment needs to focus on both the teachers and the students, with clear goals and expectations for both. We not only need more STEM teachers, but we need STEM teachers who clearly demonstrate their effectiveness. We not only need more STEM-literate students, but we need to use that literacy to fill the pipeline of secondary and postsecondary education, whether a child aspires to be an athlete, contractor, chemist or engineer.

And we need a community that places strong value on those STEM skills, recognizing we are a “Creative Corridor” and will be stronger with STEM students.

Allen Witt teaches at Kirkwood Community College, is a principal at Hall & Hall Engineers Inc. and serves on the Cedar Rapids Community School District Board of Education. Comments: allen.witt@kirkwood.edu

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