UNION COUNTY — The development of critical thinking skills that will enable students to successfully compete in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy is the goal of the Union County School District’s plans to expand its STEM program.
Tabitha Talley, Union County School District Coordinator of Instruction, recently addressed the Union Rotary Club about “Operation Opportunity,” the expansion of the school district’s STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics — program. Talley said the expansion of the program is vital to the development of a workforce that can keep Union County competitive in the global, critical thinking-based based economy of the 21st century. She said that the demand for such a workforce will only continue to grow in the years to come and meeting that demand will require changes not only in the educational system, but in the attitudes of students toward careers in manufacturing.
“To remain competitive in today’s global workforce, we are working to ensure our students will have the skills necessary to be successful in college and careers,” Talley said. “According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 16 percent of high school students are interested in a STEM career and have proven a proficiency in mathematics.
“The need for a STEM-skilled workforce is critical to our economy,” she said. “For a field growing at such a fast rate, we will not be able to meet the demands if we do not create a major paradigm shift in education. If you wonder why you keep hearing about STEM, it is because of all of the recent research highlighting what will happen if we do not focus on these 21st century skills in our nation’s schools.”
Talley cited “STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future,” a report from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration which states that:
• Over the past 10 years, growth in STEM jobs was three times as fast as growth in non-STEM jobs.
• STEM workers command higher wages, earning 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts.
• Regardless of educational attainment, entering a STEM profession is associated with higher earnings and reduced joblessness.
Talley said the reason for this is due to the increasing importance of critical thinking skills to the economy in general and manufacturing in particular.
“STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, however STEM really means any field that creates, discovers, and applies new knowledge to make our lives better,” Talley said. “This field requires our students to create and discover, they must ask why and how about things that need to be designed and search for new ways to understand things better.
“These careers are in high-demand and the data shows these positions earn higher wages and have better job security,” she said. “As we work to implement more STEM curriculum into our schools, we will be providing hands-on, real-world experiences to interest our students and build critical thinking skills imperative to their academic success.”
Talley said the district is already working to increase student interest in STEM by exposing them to the realities of 21st century manufacturing.
“We must connect students to jobs of the future by reengaging them in these important fields and change the mind set of what working in a ‘plant’ looks like today,” Talley said. “We took a field trip to Gestamp and students were amazed at how few people they actually saw on the floor. We still envision the place our grandfathers worked but that is not what manufacturing looks like today. One major goal of our community STEM night, Lego Leagues and curriculum is to change that mindset and encourage our students to pursue these fields where job stability is very favorable.”
Talley said that the educational system must not only reflect the changes in the workplace that it must help prepare students for, but also the reality that, even before they begin school, children are already deeply immersed in a technologically advanced, knowledge-driven lifestyle.
“Students have changed, educators have changed, learning itself has changed,” Talley said. “The learning tools must evolve accordingly. My two year olds can find their favorite Elmo app on my iPad in under 20 seconds. These children have grown up in the technology age and we have to tap into that interest to show how those skills relate to these careers.”
Talley said the district’s efforts to tap into that interest have been boosted by grants to its middle schools from the Timken Foundation of Ohio and Joey Hines of Santuc Precision. She said the grants enabled the district to implement the STEM Academy Curriculum and continue with First Lego League clubs in all three middle schools.
In addition, Talley said there have been visits to schools in the state that have been successful in their STEM currculum and practices. She said the district is currently working on creating pilot teams and groups of teachers to implement a Project Based Learning approach to STEM curriculum in the middle schools next year.
“STEM is not just about doing a science project one week in class,” Talley said. “It is a completely different way of teaching and learning that will enable our kids to be competitive in college and the global economy.”
Talley also pointed out that while technology is important, in the end, the success or failure of the school’s STEM program will be determined by whether or not it has turned out young people who can think critically when facing the challenges of the 21st century.
“It is not about the amount of technology you have or the size of your district, it’s about finding the right tools that you can adapt to your needs and fully integrate into your lessons to make learning real and relevant,” Talley said. “It is not about every child having an iPad or smart phone, we want them to think and explore their questions. Technology is important and should be integrated in our curriculum but assisting our students to think critically about the world far exceeds any device.”