STEM school programs prepare students for tomorrow’s jobs

STEM jobs are set to rise 11% by 2031. Alabama's schools are adopting programs to prepare their students.

Students from Autauga County Schools participate in the robotics competition.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs in the United States are set to rise 11% by 2031, more than two times faster than the total for all occupations.

In fact, the bureau reported that in 2021 close to 10 million workers in the United States already held STEM jobs.

“In an ever-changing, increasingly complex world, it’s more important than ever that our nation’s youth are prepared to bring knowledge and skills to solve problems, make sense of information and know how to gather and evaluate evidence to make decisions,” the report states.

Because of this growing trend, many school systems in recent years across the nation, including Alabama, have adopted STEM education.

The STEM Education Research Center defines STEM education as an interdisciplinary approach using hands-on, problem-based learning in the classroom.

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Around Alabama, school systems over the last several years have adopted various STEM programs introducing K-12 students to subjects ranging from computer coding, architecture and robotics to physics and engineering. Some schools have even created their own labs — or what are called makerspace rooms — where students come to conduct experiments, explore, inquire and design using a variety of materials, tools and technologies.

Even many high schools have folded STEM into their career technical education (CTE) programs.

Advance CTE, a national association of state CTE directors, even argues that CTE is a STEM strategy.

Advance CTE writes, “While a state’s CTE programs may not encompass everything within a state’s STEM strategy, high-quality CTE programs can provide a strong foundation for and serve as a delivery system of STEM competencies and skills for a broader range of students.”

To help bolster STEM education in Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey, by executive order in 2020, established the Alabama STEM Council, a body that would advise school systems in the state on how to improve STEM education, career awareness and workforce development.

The Alabama STEM Council says STEM programs should teach students a number of skills, including how to reason both abstractly and quantitatively, argue from evidence, solve problems, work collaboratively with others and communicate effectively.

Here are just a few examples.

Trussville City Schools

Just outside of Birmingham, Trussville City Schools provides STEM education for students starting in elementary school through high school, says Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Lisa Berry.

“Foundations are built at the elementary school through lessons in the core content areas, weekly STEM lessons and makerspace opportunities,” Berry says.

For example, at the Cahaba, Magnolia and Paine elementary schools, young children visit with a STEM teacher each week to learn coding using and robotics using small, yellow plastic robots, called Bee-Bots that teach children programming and problem solving, she says.

“We’re lucky that we’ve been awarded robotics grants from the state for the last few years. So, we have Bee-Bots in every school and Hummingbird Bit robotics kits, which have microbits,” Berry says.

Older students attending Hewitt-Trussville Middle School and Hewitt-Trussville High School can explore their STEM interests through CTE courses, electives and clubs,” says April Chamberlain, Trussville City School’s technology supervisor.

Middle school students, for example, can participate in a medical detective unit where they learn about the human body and symptoms and solve medical mysteries. They also can learn concepts in areas like pre-engineering and computer science through classroom experiments.

At Hewitt-Trussville High School, students can choose to take classes in one of several career “academies,” or pathways, such as engineering, biomedical sciences, computer science, sports medicine and modern manufacturing where instructors show students how scientific, mathematical, technological and digital concepts are used in real-world jobs.

Autauga County Schools

Autauga County Schools’ Department of Curriculum and Instruction organized a program to bring hands-on STEM and STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) lessons and activities on two refurbished school buses to their students.

The STREAM bus is for younger K-4 students while the STEM bus targets older students. Teachers can sign up for a bus to come to their campus, Holly McNider, Autauga’s director of curriculum and instruction, says.

Officials of Autauga County Schools gather to open the expanded STEM facilities.

“It’s kind of like a field trip without ever leaving campus,” she says.

Most recently, Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama awarded Autauga County Schools a $114,750 grant for the 2023-2024 and 2024-2025 school years as part of its Hyundai Initiative for Robotics Excellence (HIRE) program.

The grant funds VEX robotics kits for students in grades K-12, as well as materials needed to compete in VEX robotics competitions. The funds also pay for teacher training through Auburn University’s Southeastern Center of Robotics Education.

In addition, a pilot program to expose the fourth-grade gifted class at Prattville Elementary School to various STEM career fields is taking place in partnership with Central Alabama Community College, McNider says.

Through the program, the class each month participates in hands-on experiments and other activities to help them explore various STEM careers, from welding and aviation to healthcare.

Opelika City Schools

At Opelika High School, students can explore a career in engineering.

Opelika High School offers the CTE STEM engineering pathway for grades 9-12. The first class is Foundations of Engineering and Technology, the school’s engineering teacher and robotics coach Brenda Howell says.

An Opelika student works with a robot.

“Anybody can take it. It’s predominantly your underclassmen, the ones who think they might want to be an engineer, and this is how they get a little taste of it and see if it really is for them,” she says.

“As far as the learning objectives, they’re learning the engineering design process and how to use the CAD (computer-aided design) software SolidWorks.”

Those who choose to continue the engineering pathway can elect to take an environmental engineering course to learn how engineers find solutions for problems such as providing safe and abundant water, she says.

“We look at global food security and how engineering can help with that, and, in particular, genetically modified organisms as food sources. We look at renewable fuel sources and particularly biofuels,” she says.

Afterward, students can take an applications of engineering course involving physics and mathematics to understand concepts like motor efficiency, vector forces, robotics systems and thermodynamics.

Brenda Howell, Opelika High School engineering teacher and robotics coach.

“Typically, we like for them to wait until 11th grade to take that one just because it has trigonometry in it. They’ve had enough math in high school that they can handle that,” Howell says.

Meanwhile, middle school students in the Opelika school district are learning robotics, digital literacy and computer technology and participating in robotics competitions.

Montgomery Public Schools

Montgomery Public Schools introduces STEM to students throughout the system.

The websites for Garrett and Dalraida elementary schools, for example, boast of their schools’ STEM labs, rooms where students as young as kindergarten can visit to learn and conduct hands-on STEM projects, from learning about animals and building simple robots to experiencing virtual reality.

Moreover, at the Bear Exploration Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology School, an MPS magnet elementary school, students take part in hands-on projects in both the school’s science and technology labs, and enjoy field trips to places like Maxwell Airforce Base in Montgomery to learn about aviation.

Meanwhile, at Montgomery’s Brewbaker Technology Magnet High School, STEM is woven into the CTE curriculum, Brewbaker Principal Jason Norred says.

“Our CTE is really the backbone of this school. That’s what makes us a magnet school. All our students go through an academy and through those academies, and through our regular coursework, STEM is embedded,” he says.

Brewbaker students can choose to study in one of several career academies that include architecture and design, medicine, engineering and information technology, as well as finance and advertising design.

In the IT academy, for example, MPS students learn to write computer code. Students can also learn about cybersecurity and how to prevent digital attacks.

IT students have even competed in CyberPatriot competitions offered by the National Youth Cyber Education Program, which is a STEM program of the Air & Space Forces Association.

In the engineering academy, Norred says, students learn to build robots using VEX educational robotics kits.

Gail Allyn Short is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the April 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

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