President Obama, speaking at Duke University last year, invoked a by-now familiar threat: India and China, with their growing economies and their emphasis on science and math education, are going to overtake us unless we start producing more scientists, engineers and innovators. The buzzword in this conversation is STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Two new North Carolina high schools opening in August are answering the call. They are just part of a surprisingly robust movement in the state towards better STEM education. It’s heartening to see this happening in a state where science and math scores on standardized tests are below the national average.
“You don’t have to come out of the womb with a brain folded in a certain way to be a scientist, said Eric Grunden, the principal of the new Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham. “It’s a skill, it’s a job like anything else.”
Grunden hopes his school will prove that any interested student can learn these highly marketable skills.
He doesn’t think the strong STEM movement in North Carolina should be surprising to anyone, given our research universities and the STEM-heavy Research Triangle. But he does think our approach to teaching science and math needs to be retooled.
“We’ve done a pretty bad job of making science interesting in the classroom,” Grunden said. “What we typically do in science education is we give you a big thick book with a bunch of terms in it, basically vocabulary and pictures and math formulas.”
As Grunden sees it, the way we have traditionally taught science doesn’t match up very well with the way science is actually practiced.
“There is so much creativity in science and there is so much collaboration and working together,” Grunden said.
That’s how his school will be different, and that’s why, as he talks about his school’s approach to teaching science and math, there are 40 students bunched around tables, working in small groups to produce their own videos about science.
They are at Research Triangle High School as part of a two-day orientation. It’s the middle of July—prime summer vacation time—but the students, who come from eight counties and 61 different middle schools, are excited to meet their new classmates and do something different with their summer break.
“I’m just ready to learn something new,” said Madison, one of Research Triangle High’s students. He hopes to go into the medical field one day. “I heard about the new way they were learning and I wanted to learn more about that.”
What really appealed to Madison was the promise of the “flipped classroom.” Instead of sitting in class listening to a lecture, the students will download playlists of digital content, some of it produced by their teachers and professors from other schools, some from teachers and professors at other schools, and listen to lectures at home. During class time, students will work on problems—what would be considered homework at a traditional school—where they can ask the teacher for help. And science concepts won’t come straight out of a book. Students will learn science by practicing science.
“We’re going to take smart kids and teach them how to think, and teach them how to communicate their thoughts,” said Stacey Alston, the principal of the STEM Early College at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro.
Students at the Early College at A&T will have an engineering-oriented approach. Their curriculum will be tied together by a focus on urban infrastructure, and they will be challenged to figure out how to improve Greensboro’s infrastructure. Alston’s school, like Grunden’s, will emphasize collaboration and communication.
Companies looking to fill STEM-related jobs are looking for employees who “are able to work collaboratively, explain things well to others, and they are adaptable in terms of being able to learn new technology and new resources,” said Mark Ezzell, the Director of Communications and Public Policy for NC STEM Learning Network.
“What we’ve seen and heard consistently from private companies is that we need to make sure that our young people are knowledgeable about STEM practices,” Ezzell said.
Ezzell’s organization is working to coordinate STEM education efforts in North Carolina. Schools all over the state are adding a STEM focus to their curriculum, but there’s no central organizing force in the STEM movement. The NC STEM Learning Network worked with the state to develop a statewide STEM education strategy, which was adopted by the State Board of Education last year.
North Carolina’s STEM movement seems to compare favorably to the efforts in other states. According to Ezzell, North Carolina is one of the few states with an official STEM education strategy.
“We’ve got the STEM strategy, fantastic research schools, interest and alignment with General Assembly. That’s where North Carolina steps ahead,” Ezzell said.
And the state’s STEM movement extends beyond K-12 education.
“Community colleges have been a key player in STEM efforts across North Carolina,” Ezzell said. “They’re the ones with the most useful partnership with businesses and schools. They’ve done some impressive work in making sure that the things taught locally are in line with what businesses need,” Ezzell said.
“When we look at North Carolina’s community colleges, we are different than many of the community college systems in the country, because our focus is economic development and industry training first,” said Matthew Meyer, the associate vice president of STEM innovation for the North Carolina Community College system.
When a company like HondaJet relocates to North Carolina, the local community college offers a specialized program of courses that prepare students to fill that company’s employment needs. So when HondaJet opened its Greensboro facility—where components for its jets are manufactured and repaired, Guilford Technical Community College began offering classes in aviation electronics. According to Meyer, the key to success for our state is in producing workers that fill the jobs that are available in industries that are thriving.
Like Ezzell, Meyer believes North Carolina is doing a pretty good job in its STEM education and outreach efforts. He cited the system’s biotechnology and life science initiative, Bionetwork, as an example. They send a mobile STEM education lab around the state–to middle and high schools, to the state fair– as part of a concerted outreach effort. During the past three years, Meyers said the lab has had over 22,000 visitors.
“It’s not our mandate to go talk about STEM, but we know it’s important, it’s important to our colleges,” Myer said. “It’s not funded for but we try to do it in any we can because it’s critical to North Carolina.”