By Julie Howle
Say a rock band went on tour, stopping in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Missouri and South Dakota, and the band contracted an illness. Now it’s your job to figure out where they got it. Doesn’t sound like your traditional seventh-grade science query, does it? But soon, seventh-graders in one Pickens County middle school will work with students in the three other states to perform tests — from dissolved oxygen and pH tests to chromatography — and share their data virtually using all kinds of technology to find the answer. It’s just one example of the growing movement of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education that integrates the areas in a problem- solving, hands-on approach. “I think these are skills that they’re going to need in the future,” said Ron Webber, coordinator for career and secondary education for the School District of Pickens County. The district has STEM programs and initiatives in K-12, and efforts to integrate and introduce such initiatives are on the rise, said Barbara Nesbitt, early childhood elementary and instructional technology coordinator for the district. “If something is truly STEM there’s an integration across the science, technology, engineering and math, and it’s not in isolation,” Nesbitt said. “They’re learning a lot of the things they would learn in math and science but they’ re integrating them together through a problem-solving activity, which is where the technology and engineering come in,” she said.
Jennifer Willis, Pickens County Council chairwoman and a parent of children in Pickens County schools, said the STEM initiative also has an impact on economic development in the area. Willis said it can help the county attract new companies and jobs and already has, describing how a company heard about the success of the robotics program in the high schools and the capabilities of the area’s students, started talking to county officials and decided to open a facility in Pickens County. She said the STEM programs and initiatives are “phenomenal” for students as well. “It’s so important for kids to understand how the things they do in the classroom translate to a job in the future, and the robotics program is a perfect example of how things they learn in school translate into a job,” Willis said. “And not just a job where you survive – a job where you can succeed, where you can do well economically, where you can advance yourself in the future.” At Edwards Middle, where some students will soon tackle the rock band science experiment, seventh-grade science teacher Jennifer Ellison said STEM initiatives are important “because it’s going to keep our kids up to date with what’s going on with the real world and to prepare them for the real world.”
Ellison said the idea for the rock band experiment project came when she met and teamed up with three seventh-grade science teachers from other states at a conference in Colorado last year. “We decided that we thought it would be a good thing to show kids that in the real world in science you share your data everywhere,” she said.
Ellison said they came up with a way for their students to share their data virtually through technology, including Google Docs, Wikispaces, Skype and YouTube.
Students in all of her science classes will participate.
Across the four states, 600 to 800 students will take part in the science experiment, Ellison said. “The big thing with kids these days is they want to connect with others through technology, through social media,” Ellison said. “What we’re trying to do is grasp that desire they have and try to incorporate it in a classroom so that it gets them excited.”
Bill Havice, associate dean for academic support services and undergraduate studies in the College of Health, Education and Human Development at Clemson University, said integrative STEM education done properly can benefit any student at any level.
He said, “You’re applying scientific principles. You’re using math. You’re using the technologies that we have available, and you’re weaving that into an engineering design and inquiry process that helps make it all meaningful.”
Havice said integrative STEM education can boost confidence for students, keep students interested who may not be otherwise and help them graduate and get their high school diploma, and better prepare students for jobs that are available in the country. “We’ll be better off because we’ll have an educated populous that can take care of this designed world that we have,” he said. “We live in a very sophisticated time.”
Havice said there is so much beyond information and communication technologies, such as medical, manufacturing, transportation, and energy and power technologies. He said there must be an educated work force to deal with and care for the designed world. Havice said manufacturing firms are locating in the Upstate and need a skilled labor force with people who can use, manage, evaluate, assess and understand technology in these other fields. Nesbitt said in the Pickens school district, the goal is for all students in the district to be touched by STEM initiatives at some point. She said fifth-graders in the district did a Jet Toy Challenge where they had to design a car with a chassis and wheels but learn how to use a balloon and different-sized nozzles to power it. The Jet Toys had to run on a series of four different tracks, each track with its own task such as getting the Jet Toy to go the farthest, Nesbitt said. “The kids are learning about forces and motion, which are science concepts, but they’re learning them in the context of a problem-solving challenge,” she said. “All of the math skills they’re learning are integrated into this challenge where they’re learning about measurements, and they’re learning about recording data,” Nesbitt said. “They’re testing different-sized nozzles and tracks and speeds, and they’ re doing a lot of charting.”
Webber said that at the high school level, most of the STEM courses are at the Pickens County Career and Technology Center, such as several pre-engineering and biomedical sciences courses and mechatronics. Hank Hutto, mechatronics instructor at the career center, said mechatronics encompasses mechanics, electronics, hydraulics, pneumatics, engineering, robotics and more. On a recent day in the mechatronics lab, one student worked on programming for a touch screen that would help run a robot. Nearby, two others tested the resistance on the fuses in a power cabinet. “These guys, by the time they get their feet wet in the field, there’s no telling where they can go,” Hutto said. “It’s definitely giving them an advantage.” He said courses like mechatronics can better prepare students for college and careers.
Brandon Roberts, 18, a Pickens High student who goes to the Career and Technology Center for mechatronics, said he enjoys coming to the center because he is “more of a hands-on person.” Roberts said he took introduction to electricity his ninth-grade year and mechatronics courses the other three years. Roberts’ mother, Donna Roberts, who also has a son at Pickens Middle, said efforts to incorporate more STEM initiatives and programs for students are great.
“It will give them more of a hands-on, what it’s going to be like when they graduate from high school or college, what the fields will be like,” she said. “I just think that that’s where the jobs are going to be for the future, and it just gives them a head start,” Roberts said. She said her younger son already has his mind made up to do mechatronics at the career center. “He wants to follow right behind his brother,” Roberts said. Webber said there are also extra-curricular activities in both middle and high schools that encompass STEM, including robotics competitions and clubs like the FLL, or FIRST Lego League, which is offered at the middle schools, and FRC, or FIRST Robotics Competition, which is offered at the high schools. “Every year they’re given a new problem, and they take their same set of robotics parts and motors and sensors and they build a robot that can perform certain tasks on a table,” he said. Nesbitt said there is an effort to incorporate STEM initiatives in schools around the country. She said STEM projects are hands on and are often team-oriented with students working in groups of two to four. “The beauty of STEM is that it allows students to learn how to get along with other people to solve problems,” Nesbitt said. “These STEM problems are meant to mimic how adults solve problems in science, technology, engineering and math.” She said STEM helps prepare students for what they will face when they have careers. Business leaders tell educators that students who are most successful are the ones with problem-solving skills, no matter the field, Nesbitt said. She said business leaders also talk “over and over again” about the importance of soft skills such as showing up on time, working as a team, being able to solve a problem, meeting a deadline, being able to share ideas and listening to other people’s arguments. STEM can help students develop those soft skills they’ll need to be employable, Nesbitt said.
She said there’s also a movement to balance instruction on the natural world and the designed, or manmade, world. “What they need to know is how to work in a world where the vast majority of jobs have to do with designing or redesigning
technologies to suit human need,” Nesbitt said. “We don’t want to abandon scientific inquiries for the natural sciences,” she said. “We just want to add on to that the balance of the designed world.”
By Julie Howle