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Colleges inspire K-12 students to choose STEM careers

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High school students work on hands-on activities at a STEM summer camp hosted by Central Community College in Nebraska.​​
Community colleges are hosting summer camps, training teachers, organizing science fairs and sponsoring internships—all focused on inspiring K-12 students to consider careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
 
STEM education is crucial to the nation’s economy and global competitiveness. According to the U.S. Department of Labor​, 15 of the 20 fastest-growing occupations for 2014 will require a significant amount of training in math or science.
 
STEM jobs also pay well. A study released in October by the Center on Education and the Workforce found that two-thirds of STEM workers with an associate degree earn higher salaries than the average non-STEM employee with an associate degree.
 
Qualified employees needed
 
At a recent STEM Summit in California, the state’s lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom, described why STEM education must be a priority: While California has a 12 percent unemployment rate with 2 million people out of work, he said, there are 500,000 unfilled jobs in the state—most of them in the STEM fields.
 
“It’s really hard for employers to find highly trained engineers and technology workers,” said Chris Roe, CEO of the California STEM Learning Network. “That alignment between the education system and workforce needs is really critical. And the community college system is a key player to fill that gap—both as a pathway to more advanced degrees and to provide critical, specialized degrees and certifications.”

“A lot of students are precluded from going into these pathways because they don’t have the preparation. That is a huge barrier,” Roe continued. “It is absolutely essential that we support community colleges and help them develop linkages with K-12 schools, four-year colleges and employers.”
 
One California community college that’s taken that mission to heart is Long Beach City College (LBCC). Among the STEM-related initiatives going on at LBCC:

• All 6,000 fourth-graders in the Long Beach Unified School District are invited to the college to see firsthand what career opportunities are available in STEM fields.
• College faculty go middle schools and help students build underwater robots and organize competitions with them.
• LBCC offers several career pathways, including one in electrical engineering, that allows students to take college courses and earn a certificate before they graduate from high school.
• The college is helping the school district develop capstone courses for high school seniors to better prepare them for college-level STEM courses. The objective is to eliminate the need for remediation in college, particularly among students of color, said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, superintendent-president of the LBCC District.
 
“We’re really working hard to increase the number of STEM-prepared students,” Oakley said. “We see it as vital to our ongoing mission of responding to the needs of the community and preparing the workforce.”
 
Teacher training
 
“We decided we needed to motivate kids to get into STEM fields by focusing on the professional development of K-12 teachers,” said Anne Seifert, STEM coordinator at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). INL created i-STEM in 2009 because employers in the state were finding it “harder and harder to recruit qualified applicants,” she said.
 
Many people don’t know about the vast options for careers and postsecondary education in STEM fields, Seifert said. 

“Idaho’s workforce needs people with associate degrees and certificates—not just PhDs. That’s why i-STEM is focusing on community colleges," she said. 
 
INL is developing regional STEM centers at the state’s six community colleges. Two centers were launched in 2010 in North Idaho College and the College of Southern Idaho (CSI), and another opened this year at the College of Western Idaho.
 
Each center has hands-on kits for K-12 teachers to use in their classrooms, with such resources as microscopes, stethoscopes and GPS devices. The centers also have sample curriculum materials, career awareness activities and advice on teaching methodologies. In addition, they provide access to experts, such as community college professors and local business leaders, who can give presentations in K-12 classrooms.
 
About 130 teachers, most of them from elementary schools, attended the i-STEM Institute at CSI this summer, said John Hughes, chair of the CSI education department. Teachers chose a particular strand to focus on, such as wind energy, physics or math, and learned how to embed hands-on activities into their curricula.
 
CSI also hosts a STEM-focused summer camp for elementary students, helps run science fairs at their schools and provides mentors for K-12 teachers.
 
According to Seifert, the professional development has helped K-12 teachers, most of whom had only taken four math and science courses in college themselves, to become more comfortable with inquiry-based and hands-on lessons in STEM subjects.  
 
Career awareness
 
A similar effort is under way at Central Community College (CCC) in Nebraska. Project SHINE (“shaping high-quality integrated Nebraska education”) brings high school teachers to campus for professional development to help them teach STEM subjects and make a connection between their instruction and the needs of local business and industry.
 
The objective of the program, which is supported by a three-year, $870,000 Advanced Technology Education grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF)​, is to help teachers incorporate real-world, problem-based learning into STEM subjects and inspire students to pursue high-demand technical careers, said Dan Davidchik, Project SHINE director at CCC.
 
Teachers from across the state take part in 10-day workshops at CCC, tour local businesses and factories, participate in mentorships and externships with businesses, and write lesson plans they can use in their schools. Among the business partners are BD Medical, the Nebraska Public Power District, Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing Corp. and Cargill Meat Solutions.
 
Davidchik said he’s seen “tremendous changes in the way teachers connect STEM with what goes on in business and industry.”
 
Project SHINE also includes a one-week STEM summer camp for ninth and 10th graders. There are separate camps for boys and girls, although the programs are the same for both groups. It’s all about career awareness, Davidchik said. The students use physics and math to make things such as catapults, robotic cars and shoebox alarms.
 
A career-interest survey given to students before and after camp found a large increase in the number of students interested in STEM careers following the camp.
 
Regional STEM network
 
Onondaga Community College (OCC) is one of several partners in the Central New York regional STEM hub, which was launched in October by the Empire State STEM Learning Network. The hub interconnects higher education, community organizations and K-12 schools and develops STEM educational models at the elementary, secondary and postsecondary levels.
 
The goal is to bring business, industry and education together to promote inquiry-based learning and career awareness, said Emmanuel Awuah, interim vice president for academic services at OCC. When students take a chemistry course, for example, they could take part in a hands-on activity at a pharmaceutical company.
 
The new initiative builds on several STEM-related partnerships OCC already has with K-12 schools. The college brings in K-12 educators to let them see the science, math and technology opportunities at OCC, and it hosts a regional science and engineering fair for grades 9-12. About 100 students from area high schools participate in OCC’s Tech Prep program, which allows them to take college-level STEM courses—and earn college credit—while still in high school.
 
Several programs at OCC are targeted at underrepresented minorities and economically disadvantaged students. Those include the state C-STEP initiative (Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program), which provides academic support, mentoring, transfer assistance, counseling and summer internships to OCC students interested in STEM careers. The college is also one of seven higher education institutions in the Upstate Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, an NSF initiative aimed at increasing the recruitment and college success rates of minority students in STEM fields.
 
OCC also hosts a five-week summer program for students in grades 4-10 called College for Kids. The programs focuses on STEM-related games, which helps them “understand the significance of the science and math they learn in school,” Awuah said. His own daughter was inspired by what she learned in that camp, he noted, and is now pursuing a career in neuroscience.
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