By Laura Williams-Tracy
Charlotte Business Journal
June 1, 2012
There seems to be no stigma to say, “I’m not good at math.” With the help of business partners, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is out to change that attitude.
As the public school system works to prepare thousands of students for future jobs in a global economy dominated by science, technology, engineering and math, STEM — an emphasis on basic skills — has never been more relevant.
Nancy Addison, director of STEM education for the school system, is making the connections between educators and the employers that will one day hire students. She recently spoke to the Charlotte Business Journal about her efforts to help build an educated work force. Following are edited excerpts from that conversation:
Kids have a natural curiosity about science. Do you know what’s happening between the early elementary years and high school that keeps students from pursuing STEM careers?
Small children have curiosity in so many things, some in music, story, art and dress. As they mature, they become more focused based on interest or talent.
In CMS, we have a nationally recognized magnet program where students can pursue their talents in music, language and performing arts. The John Morehead STEM Academy is a K-8 school (see related story, page 20) and several high schools have STEM academies. I think as they start to mature, we have avenues they can pursue.
What is CMS doing to increase STEM learning?
I think in the past couple of years, we’ve really started to see a shift. President Obama in the state of the union address made reference to the need to work in the STEM industry and mentioned the work of Siemens and Central Piedmont Community College . That was huge awareness from a national level.
When we get into a local program like Time Warner Cable’s Connect a Million Minds, it brings a local focus. We are now launching the NC STEM Network, a collaboration between public schools, business and higher education with more resources for students.
Five years ago when you said STEM learning, people didn’t know what you were talking about. We’re starting to change that attitude.
Do students and their parents often lack understanding about the potential opportunities and high pay of STEM jobs?
We’re working on improving that communication with students and their parents. For the past three years, we’ve had Passport to STEM. It’s a collaboration between CMS, Time Warner Cable and CPCC for middle school.
Each year in November, middle school students come to CPCC and we have booths of representatives of local industry such as Carolinas HealthCare System , Duke Energy and others. Students can learn about what programs are available and what they should be doing now to prepare for training.
For high school, we are launching STEMersion 2012. This year, 25 science, math and career-tech teachers will participate in a two-week immersion program in labs at Siemens, Coca-Cola and other industries.
We want them to take back to the classroom how science and math being taught in the classroom has a real-world connection and to have people be aware of the jobs in their backyard.
This is our pilot year, but we’re hoping it will be an ongoing project.
Time Warner Cable is a big supporter of STEM with its Connect a Million Minds program. How important is corporate financial support to growing STEM?
Financial support is just a small part. Our business partners provide volunteers and their expertise, which is equally valuable.
Volunteers put in a school garden at Whitewater Middle School and a solar company in Indian Trail established a lab at South Mecklenburg High School.
Do those businesses provide insights on what’s needed in the STEM curriculum?
Not as much at the K-12 level. What we teach in K-12 public schools is determined by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
We have our standards that we must teach. As part of effective instruction, teachers look for ways to incorporate real-world examples.
Many opportunities for students interested in science seem to be outside of the classroom in after-school clubs. Is this changing to better integrate fun experiences in science — such as Lego Robotics — into the school day?
There are time limits. The after-school clubs are an extension and enrichment of classroom instruction. We do try for students who express an interest and talent in math or science to have an opportunity to explore and compete.
It’s a complement to the classroom, and we find those who participate are more excited about classroom instruction.
What’s your best success story about STEM in CMS?
I’m not sure we’ve had our best success story yet. One program that deserves recognition is Partners in Education at McClintock Middle School, where a local church reached out to create a parent night and serve dinner. That bloomed into tutoring and mentoring.
The school has a strong science department, and that blossomed into a First Lego League chapter there. The program has increased attendance and improved test scores. It goes beyond STEM learning, but with the school’s strong science department, they are doing several summer camps there.