STEM Education

What it is and why it’s important

By DANIEL BEAUREGARD

As technology continues to expand at a rapid rate, careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are among the fastest-growing jobs in the nation. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration, STEM-related job growth was three times greater than that of non-STEM jobs over the last 10 years. Over the next decade, STEM jobs are expected to grow at an even faster rate as those fields take on an increased importance due to continuing technological advances.

An early start on STEM education can give today’s elementary and high-school students an advantage when competing for high-tech, high-wage jobs in the future. For that reason, many schools in the Atlanta area and across the country are adopting STEM initiatives and incorporating some aspects of STEM into their curricula.

Exactly what falls under the heading of STEM can differ from school to school. But in general, STEM curricula emphasizes instruction that introduces students to the principles of these disciplines at an earlier age, even in elementary school, and makes these subjects accessible to all students instead of reserving them for advanced classes and gifted programs. And many such schools offer an “integrated” curriculum, meaning that whether students are taking biology or a language arts class, what they’re learning will relate in some way to STEM and how it applies to the real world.

In addition, STEM education fosters an environment that encourages collaboration.

“STEM is driven by problem-solving, discovery, exploratory learning and student-centered development of ideas and solutions,” says Andres Pinzon, STEM center director for Holy Spirit Preparatory School.

Approaches to STEM Education

There are a number of different approaches to teaching STEM in Atlanta, including schools dedicated solely to STEM learning. One of those is the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology, a charter school in the Gwinnett County school district. The Gwinnett School came into being to produce students who could help fill employment gaps in STEM fields and “to bridge the interest that kids innately have of STEM and reach down into the elementary and middle schools and excite the students more,” says principal Jeff Mathews.

The school brings in partners to speak to the students each year, and every student is required to participate in a job-shadowing program and complete an internship at a local STEM company before graduating.

While many metro Atlanta schools with a STEM-based curriculum are high schools, the Marietta Center for Advanced Academics (MCAA) serves students in grades three through five. That’s because the key to filling the gaps in the STEM fields is to get children interested at an early age, while they’re open-minded and creative, says principal Jennifer Hernandez.

Other area schools offer STEM courses as a part of a wider curriculum. Mount Pisgah Christian School in Johns Creek uses integrated technology in and out of the classrooms to help prepare students for post-secondary education in STEM fields. Mount Carmel Christian School offers technology and engineering courses, and also features engineering, robotics and science clubs so students can further their interests outside of the classroom.

Students at Holy Spirit’s STEM lab have engaged in such activities as competitive robotics and 3-D modeling. Fourth-grade students were able to experience a 3-D simulation of the solar system.

Response has been so positive that for the 2012-2013 school year, the school has extended its offerings to include a STEM honors diploma program and a number of new STEM clubs, including Mythbusters and Cosmetic Design.

Cherokee Christian High School in Woodstock also features a separate STEM diploma program, the Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Other schools offer separate STEM schools inside their walls: The Rockdale Magnet School for Science And Technology is housed within Rockdale County High School in Conyers.

Areas of Emphasis

While the Gwinnett School focuses on bioscience, engineering and emerging technology, the emphasis at MCAA is on engineering. At one time, each grade level was offered four different STEM classes, says Hernandez, but teachers and officials realized that engineering is “the glue that holds all the pieces together.”

Students from a third grade class about heat and energy recently designed, built and tested a solar oven to reinforce what they’d learned. Another group went into a creek on MCAA’s property and tested the water, then designed and built an eco-friendly birdhouse.

At the Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology, meanwhile, “the cornerstone of our curriculum is scientific research,” says director Mary Ann Suddeth. After fulfilling some required courses, students can branch out into a research area such as microbiology, physics or engineering.

The school has several labs where students perform hands-on research in such areas as cellular biology, microbiology, animal and plant sciences and nanotechnology. Before graduating, each student is required to complete a scientific research project based on their area of study.

Preparing for the Future

Whether incorporating STEM into an existing curriculum or focusing exclusively on a specific STEM field, all of these schools are pursuing the same goal: acquainting students with areas of study that are becoming increasingly important—and preparing them to pursue degrees and careers in science and engineering fields.

The goal at the Rockdale Magnet School, says Suddeth, is to expose students to academic opportunities that will help rocket them into top-notch colleges and jobs. “Our students stand out in those application processes because of the opportunities they’ve had here,” she says.

The majority of students at MCAA, says Hernandez, will “matriculate through high school, college and beyond” in the STEM field.

“We feel that giving the students the opportunity to learn at a higher level and be exposed to STEM will really propel them forward and prepare them” for the future, she says.

STEM 101

What is STEM, anyway?
STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. These four disciplines are considered crucial fields of study for today’s students.

Why is it important?
STEM careers are among the fastest-growing fields in the country. STEM schools and curricula are designed to meet the growing need for workers in these areas.

What are some examples of STEM related fields or careers?
A very brief list of STEM-related jobs and fields would include computer science, biochemistry, robotics, computer engineering, electrical engineering, aerospace engineering, astrophysics, nanotechnology, statistics, nuclear physics and mathematical biology.

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