Ask Kylee Kinslow or Max James why they decided to attend Brooks Middle School in Wichita – a technology and performing arts magnet – and they both answer with a single word:
The eighth-graders answer quickly because they’re busy tapping at computers and watching monitors in Brooks’ video production lab. For them, school is no longer just about reading, writing, math and science. They don’t just listen to lectures, read textbooks and take paper-and-pencil tests.
Their school, like countless others across the state, is refocusing attention on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) – overhauling curriculum, establishing new programs and matching kids with mentors as part of an unprecedented effort to build a bigger pipeline of kids who will be ready for jobs in tomorrow’s workforce.
“For years, we’ve been looking for ways to make science and math more relevant for our high school students,” said Jay Scott, assistant director of career and technical education for the Kansas Department of Education.
“We’re preparing kids for careers and occupations that haven’t even been created yet, so it’s kind of a moving target. But it’s exciting. … STEM represents an opportunity for that to happen.”
A number of national reports have pointed to a need for more professionals and workers in STEM fields.
A 2012 report by President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology concluded that the need for STEM professionals will significantly outweigh the availability of those workers over the next decade if current trends continue. And a recent report from the Bayer Corporation’s Facts of Science Education survey suggested that Fortune 1000 companies are struggling to fill STEM positions due to a shortage of qualified candidates.
School districts are scrambling to meet the need – and some are tapping into new funding sources.
In September, the Wichita district was awarded a three-year, $12 million federal grant aimed at expanding programs and reducing minority isolation in schools with substantial proportions of minority students.
The district plans to use the money to establish or enhance STEM programs at five schools: Brooks Middle School, Jardine Middle School, Buckner Elementary, L’Ouverture Elementary and Spaght Elementary.
At the same time, Wichita is a finalist in a national contest that aims to help cities bolster STEM mentoring programs. The US2020 City Competition, a new education organization based in Boston, ultimately will provide three to five winning cities with nearly $1 million in resources to increase mentoring for girls, low-income youths and minorities.
Nola Brown, executive director of Volunteer Kansas and a member of the local US2020 coalition, said the group has proposed to target the same five Wichita schools for its pilot project. Statewide, she said, a new focus on STEM programs and mentoring already has had an effect.
“We recently moved from No. 7 in volunteerism in the nation to No. 4,” she said. “We want to be first in the nation, and I think this push on STEM mentoring may really be one of the things that helps us reach that goal.”
At Brooks Middle School, near 27th Street North and Hillside, increased funding will translate into new labs and studios with technology such as 3-D printers, where students will learn engineering principles and be able to test them by designing and creating prototypes.
The school plans to overhaul its library into a state-of-the-art “exploration media center,” where students could work during or after school on computers and e-readers in “a Barnes & Noble atmosphere,” said principal Robert Garner.
“This is really going to propel us, give us a jump-start and create some attention on these five schools,” Garner said. “We want to expose these kids to careers and possibilities that they might not ever have considered.”
Educators say the key to successful STEM programs is tapping into kids’ natural interest in science, math and technology by showing them how they would use it in the real world.
Several Wichita schools already are doing that with Project Lead the Way, a national nonprofit program that provides STEM programs paired with professional development for teachers.
And some Brooks students learn about aviation careers through the Flying Challenge mentoring program, a partnership between Airbus and United Way of the Plains.
“Mentoring is really going to be key to this effort,” said Judith Wencel, founder of Success in the Middle, a mentoring program for middle-schoolers.
“There are career fields a student might be interested in and not even realize it,” she said. “But when you have a personal relationship with someone who is in one of those careers, then things start to look possible.”
Outfitting schools to offer STEM classes – like those featured in a new STEM “career cluster” for Kansas high-schoolers – can be costly. Courses such as civil engineering, robotics, applied biochemistry or GIS (geographic information systems) spatial applications require more than desks, textbooks and a whiteboard, said Scott, the state education official.
In a recent cost survey of technical education programs, “STEM came out on top as far as total cost,” Scott said. Although districts get about $275 in additional state funding for each student enrolled in a career or technical education class, STEM courses cost districts about $1,128 per student, he said.
“It is an expensive pathway, but I think schools are buying into this and making the investment,” Scott said. “Because they know it’s really going to transform their science and math.”
Mike Tinich, a longtime physics teacher at Maize South High School, heads a new engineering program at the school that began last year.
Some students enroll because they like math or science and someone told them they should be an engineer, he said. Others like to tinker and build stuff.
Both kinds of students develop creativity, problem solving and critical thinking skills that will pay off regardless of what career they finally pursue, Tinich said.
“So often students are like, ‘Why are we learning this?’ And these classes show them the practical applications,” he said. “Most of them don’t fully understand what engineering is until they get in here.
“Some find out this really is what they want to do, and some realize this isn’t for them,” Tinich said. “Either way, we’re helping them get to that decision a little earlier in the process.”