Middle level education is currently placing an emphasis on integrating science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes into curriculums around the nation, as well as involving more students in STEM extracurricular activities. In recent years, students were encouraged to participate in STEM programs through a variety of initiatives such as the "Educate to Innovate" campaign. Pushing students toward a STEM centered curriculum is not without just cause; in the past decade in the United States alone, there has been a steady increase in the amount of professions that require some STEM related job training. It is predicted that the nation's schools will not produce enough qualified candidates to fill all of the STEM positions that will be available.
Holcomb Bridge Middle School has taken an approach to confronting this national problem head on by creating a STEM Leadership Academy. Instead of only preparing students to compete with other students for spots in top colleges, the school is also preparing students to compete for top STEM careers. One way this is being accomplished is through the Holcomb Bridge STEM Leadership Academy, which integrates STEM into the curriculum by bringing STEM careers into the middle school so students are exposed to future career opportunities.
When the program was first implemented, only middle school students taking math and science classes for high school credit in a small cohort were considered for the academy. Now in its third year of implementation, Holcomb Bridge's STEM program has expanded to include all grade levels as well as students taking advanced engineering classes for high school credit as an elective during the middle school years. Along with earning high school credit, students in the STEM Leadership Academy are afforded the unique opportunity to attend a career talk, interact with STEM focused mentors, compete in STEM competitions and thinking exercises, and attend STEM related field trips. Along with extra exposure to STEM related activities, students are assessed at the end of the year through a "STEMfolio," which showcases artifacts in a culminating digital portfolio.
During the middle school years students are going through a variety of changes, and their interests are both strengthened and weakened depending on their experiences. The concept of fostering interests rings true in all subjects across the curriculum, but now, more than ever, it rings true in the STEM subjects. Depending on their experiences in middle school, student interest can either be cultivated with lively, interactive, real-world experiences or it can be suppressed by rote memorization and teacher-centered experiences. The experiences a student encounters during middle school will influence the ideas and perceptions they form about STEM and affect class choices in high school as well as career aspirations.
To help ensure that students are having positive exposures to STEM and STEM careers, student interests are taken into consideration through career exploration activities, which allows students to research careers and submit requests to have those careers become part of the STEM Leadership Academy career talk days. Allowing students to have this opportunity has opened students' eyes to STEM careers in their own community. A reality of today's students is that not all students will be attending a four-year university. Many students will attend two-year community colleges or even go directly into the job force after high school. Regardless, students need to understand that whatever they end up doing, it is likely that STEM will be there. Introducing students to STEM careers while in middle school helps them prepare for and focus on careers they may not have previously known about.
Involving the world outside the halls of Holcomb Bridge—its community businesses and leaders—has also been one of the biggest assets in exposing students to different STEM careers and pathways. This process has allowed the school to form partnerships with various STEM professionals and organizations in the surrounding community, which has been beneficial for students as well as for teachers. New partnerships have allowed teachers to earn grants to improve school programs, provide real-world engagement for students, and offer access to internship opportunities for students once they reach high school. Community support and interaction is a key component of our STEM program at Holcomb Bridge.
Though they are extremely beneficial, making partnerships is not always easy, and through building an established STEM program the teachers at Holcomb Bridge have learned a thing or two about starting new and maintaining old partnerships. First, before jumping into a partnership consider what you want out of a partnership. This will allow you to establish a goal so you can get the most out of the newly formed partnership. This also allows both parties entering the partnership to be transparent with one another. Second, to begin the process of forming a partnership, you must get to know your community and what's around you. This can include contacting local businesses or asking the parents of your students. Lastly, it is important to not only ask how this partnership will benefit students, but to ask how the school, and more importantly the students, can benefit the community.
Overall the STEM Leadership Academy has been very successful; however, it is still a work in progress, and the teachers involved are hopeful that the program will continue to grow. Growing the program will mean increasing the number of partnerships formed, increasing the number of students participating, increasing the number of advanced content available to students, helping students seek out scholarships in STEM, and educating families of our students about the importance of STEM. The program's growth is important because Holcomb Bridge has seen a variety of gains: increased participation in STEM related clubs, increased student engagement in STEM classrooms, and perhaps most surprisingly, an increase in the active participation of students in the community. As the STEM program expands and grows, those involved with the program are hopeful that the gains seen in current participants extend to those who join the STEM Leadership Academy.
David Paperno, Ed.D., was previously an eighth grade physical science teacher for Elkins Pointe Middle School, Roswell, Georgia.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2017.