Let’s STEM Together

Collectively, we give a great deal of lip service to the idea of collaboration.  We seem to know that we should engage other stakeholders in our reforms.  We recognize the importance of different voices from different perspectives.  But in the end, we tend to flock around our own.  Teacher-focused reform.  Policies driven in a decisionmaker vacuum.  Even students who try to go down the change path all by their lonesome.

This week, Eduflack was fortunate enough to moderate a panel discussion on behalf of the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Team Pennsylvania Foundation.  The groups brought hundreds of individuals to Harrisburg to discuss the importance of a statewide STEM education effort.  The audience was a textbook definition of the collaboration we typically seek — representatives from P-12, higher education, business, NFPs, and government.  High school students and 30-year veterans.  All five regions of the state strongly represented.  All gathered together to improve STEM education for the state.

The panel discussion, in particular, was an interesting one.  We purposely heard from a variety of voices in STEM education field.  Two newish educators collaborating to build a STEM high school in Pittsburgh (doors opening in 2009).  A corporate representative who has demonstrated his commitment to STEM skills and STEM hires for years.  The president of Saint Francis University, whose TEAMS effort could teach a lot of IHEs how to prepare teachers for the rigors of STEM.  And two students currently participating in STEM apprenticeship programs with Lockheed Martin — both enrolled in community college, both excited about the career paths available to them.

This diverse panel gave the full audience a great deal to think about, helping them answer some key questions we all seem to dwell on.  Why is STEM education so important?  Who benefits from it?  What is my role in adopting a STEM program?  What do we do if we don’t have money to open a new school or start an apprenticeship program?  How do we know we are successful?  What’s the end game, both in terms of results and calendar.

Father Gabe Zies, the president of Saint Francis, was particularly powerful in discussing the final question.  This is not a two-year effort, with a calendar dictated by the term of a grant from the NGA.  Investment in STEM education is a long-term game.  We don’t look for an end.  Instead, we constantly look to improve and enhance.  The effort will continue to evolve as our technology and our skill needs evolve.  In essence, Father Gabe is saying that STEM is about meeting the challenges of tomorrow.  It is about innovation, an innovation that never stops and should never waver.  And that means an initiative that is perpetually adapting and changing to address those needs continually ensure our students, our teachers, and our schools are up to the challenges ahead of them.

There was universal agreement that STEM education is a shared responsibility with shared returns on investment.  No audience can go it alone, and none should be forced to.  Through collaboration, these Pennsylvania STEM advocates were confident they can build a strong, sustainable effort that strengthens both P-16 education and the workforce.

The group also heard from Pennsylvania Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak, who kicked the forum off with an inspirational discussion of hope and opportunity.  Channeling football great Vince Lombardi, Zahorchak cited a goal of perfection.  He noted Lombardi consistently pushed all his players to achieve perfection.  Whenever they were asked about it, they said they aren’t there yet, but they are a whole lot better today than they were before.  And they would be better tomorrow.

Such sentiment is important in education reform, and it is often lost in the NCLB era.  We seem to look for excuses as to why every child can’t succeed and how we need expand exceptions to the law or look for loopholes to get us out of the problem.  In discussing STEM, Zahorchak recognizes what the end goal is — a fully STEM-literate society.  High school diplomas that hold real value in the work world.  Postsecondary academic pathways that were previously unavailable to many.  Career opportunities that strengthen the family while strengthening the region and state’s overall economy.  Opportunities for all, not just for those seeking to be rocket scientists or brain surgeons.

I don’t know about the other participants, but Coach Zahorchak, I’m ready to suit up and get down in a three-point stance.  Perfection should be our end game.  The panelists I spoke with clearly demonstrated we have the tools, the experience, and the passion to get there.  Now we just need to harness all those tools, work together, and ensure that our strongest team is on the field.

After this week, I am certain Pennsylvania is up to the challenge, and has the opportunity to serve as a true model for STEM education in the coming years.

7 thoughts on “Let’s STEM Together

  1. STEM academies look like another hat trick out of NGA, an easy campaign promise. Do they work? I don’t know. In Texas, they are kept tightly under wraps. We don’t know yet what we’re getting out of them.I would prefer improved STEM education for the remaining 98 percent of the students in the state rather than a showboat showcase program that benefits a limited number of kids and the campaign trail politics.

  2. In my homestate of Virginia, we are getting ready to launch a series of GOvernor’s STEM Academies.  I’d like to believe they will be a success, and have confidence they will.  But the verdict is still out.I completely agree that the goal should be integrating STEM education in in the typical classrooms so all kids benefit.  Equally important, it needs to be across the grades.  This is not just a high school thing.  There are successful STEM efforts for the K-6 set as well.  Just look at Minnesota.STEM shouldn’t be a showboat issue to attact political attention and political funding.  If it is to be a long-term success, it needs to be seen as a successor to the three Rs.  Students need basic literacy skills, basic computational skills, and basic STEM schools if they are to succeed beyond the schoolhouse walls.

  3. What we have found in Texas is that it’s difficult to get an honest evaluation out of any program with the name of “Governor” in front of it. Agency staff tell me that good deeds at these academics will be integrated into mainstream classrooms — and I think I can buy STEM academies on that — but I think all legislation should be drafted with a focus on honest assessment and a good integration of sound practices into the regular classroom. And I do think that we need to push science down further in Texas. I’ve heard teachers say that 4th grade science is too late if we’re going to do 5th grade testing.

  4. Oh, yeah, and let me add that I haven’t drunk the Kool Aid on STEM education yet. Yes, I think all children need a practical knowledge of math and science. And we need more math and science majors. But we have to recognize we’re also dealing with a culture these days where the kids would prefer to take a marketing degree and the quick buck over a tedious job in the lab. My brother? Perfect math score on the SAT. What’s he doing? Mortgages. (You know he’s got to be regretting that decision right now!)I think a basic foundation of math and science (with the ability to question and analyze) is excellent. But I think non-math and science pursuits are worthy, too. But I was a high school journalism teacher.

  5. I’d like to believe that Governor Kaine of Virginia will be a little more open and honest with the data than Governor Perry.

  6. Let me be clear.  I am a cynic at heart.  ANd I’ve spent much of the last year studying STEM, visiting programs, and hearing from people.  ANd I truly believe it is a effort that does benefit all children.  It takes what is often arcane math and science learning and makes it practical, relevant, and interesting to the student. Good STEM requires good teachers who get it.  But all kids benefit from it.  The soft skills that come from good STEM education will benefit a rocket scientist, a marketer, a journalist, and even a poet.

  7. Sure, but all good efforts require good planning.Let me give you one potential fallout.You set up a STEM academy in an area where it will be fed by one district with one high school.Those kids leave their home high school. And then you have trouble “making” chemistry and physics classes at the “sending” high school. Have you really benefited all kids?These schools don’t operate in a vacuum.I’ve been on a low-performing campus where they stripped out the magnet and then let everyone transfer. And they were left with 500 kids.What do you do with 500 kids? You no longer have a band or a journalism program or a football team. You no longer have all your electives. And the school is robbed of the kids with the energy to pursue upper-level science and math courses. It drags the campus down.I think many might argue that was what the campus deserved. But I get tired of strategies that fail to help schools and, instead, simply put the last nail in the coffin.Just a small aside. I know that’s not the whole of how STEM can help. I just think there is a bigger picture there.

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