Just a few years ago, when Brentwood Elementary School students were scoring 30 percent or less proficient on standardized tests, Wake County turned the school – one of the district’s lowest performing – into the Brentwood Magnet Elementary School of Engineering, reorganizing the school day to make STEM a priority.
Even though three out of four of the school’s 500 students come from economically disadvantaged homes and 40 percent speak English as a second language, Brentwood has turned itself around by making engineering its focus. Engineering is Elementary® (EiE®), a curriculum developed by the National Center for Technological Literacy® at the Museum of Science, Boston, played a key role in the transformation.
Last month, Brentwood and Wake STEM Early College High School were recognized by the State Board of Education for meeting the model level of achievement in STEM instruction, and East Cary Middle School was honored for meeting the prepared level.
Wake STEM has partnered with North Carolina New Schools to develop integrated project-based learning units focused around the 14 Grand Challenges of Engineering. East Cary built its STEM program through student-centered STEM electives that are offered every two weeks, robust partnerships with Triangle area businesses and the application of the engineering design process throughout the day.
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The STEM fields are key to innovation in today’s competitive economy. By 2018, 8 million STEM job openings are expected, but only 17 percent of high school students are graduating with the interest and math skills to begin a STEM college major; only half of those will actually finish a STEM degree. Recent data on North Carolina students showed that only 23 percent scored at the “college-ready” level in science in an ACT college-entrance exam.
We believe that to prepare students for success in STEM learning, we must introduce them to the engineering design skills and concepts that will give them practical experience solving real problems. Identifying a problem, designing a solution, testing and improving a design also integrate learning communication skills, history and social studies.
Stepping up to the challenge, North Carolina has had a leadership role in developing the Next Generation Science Standards, which place unprecedented focus on classroom engineering activities. Since 2003, North Carolina New Schools has helped support nearly 40 STEM-themed high schools in the state.
In April, Gov. Pat McCrory joined GSK and North Carolina New Schools to announce a major venture to advance STEM education in public education aligned with industry and higher education: STEMAccelerator – Next Generation Learning for North Carolina. The initiative is accelerating proven STEM education approaches and developing new ones, focused on transforming math and science instruction.
Since 2011, Brentwood has seen steady gains in test scores and met state goals for expected growth. In a recent survey, fifth-graders communicated a 13 percent greater understanding of engineering and its beneficial effects than other students in the district; 78 percent expressed an interest in engineering careers, compared with 62 percent in other district STEM elementary schools.
A likely reason is that Brentwood STEM coordinator Emily Hardee chose EiE activities “because they connect with real-world events.” For example, she linked an EiE unit that asked students to create their own strategies to clean up an oil spill on a model estuary with a state legislature vote on offshore drilling.
More must be done to fill the STEM pipeline. We urge working engineers, educators at all levels and businesses to work together with government to advance STEM education and inspire our next generation of engineers, scientists and technologically literate consumers and citizens.
Ioannis N. Miaoulis, Ph.D., is president and director of the Museum of Science in Boston. Cathy Moore is deputy superintendent for Academic Advancement for the Wake County Public School System.