Is it really STEM at work?

In April 2011, the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Strategic Plan Task Force of the FCR-STEM (the Florida Center for Research in STEM) published its strategic plan for Florida STEM education (Click Here to read the full report). This 60+ page effort focuses on K12 and post-secondary education. The declared task is to build a strong and deep STEM knowledge and skills based workforce. The document also defines current status by compiling a number of educational rankings and standardized test results into one document. These data provide some guidelines as to what needs to be improved, it is also data that the Florida Department of Education (FL DOE) and educators have been tracking, for that purpose, for a number of years. The Florida STEM Strategic Plan is laid out in three goals: the first related to student performance; the second related to teacher preparation and performance, and the third focused on establishing a sustainable infrastructure for STEM.

Although it is commendable that this FCR-STEM publication has set STEM performance and preparation goals, increasing the competency levels of Florida's K12 students and faculty in STEM disciplines has been a clear focus of the FL DOE for a number of years. Its implementation of the 2006 legislation defining Florida Career Academies initiated the FL DOE's long-term strategy to increase student graduation rates, provide relevant career aligned education, align career education programs with valid industry certifications, and implement problem based learning in learning communities in Florida schools. There are now numerous academies across Florida school districts, and thousands of industry certifications earned by Florida high school students. The FL DOE has continued to push the rigor of career academies by aligning the CTE standards to academic STEM standards to permit academic credit for students in the aligned academies. The state driven implementation timeline includes breathing room to be sure teachers are, or will be properly trained and credentialed to teach both a CTE and an academic science, or math.

The FLDOE has also developed the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards (NGSSS) as well as implementing new, more rigorous high school graduation requirements legislated in 2009. To graduate from a Florida high school, 9th graders in 2013 will be required to successfully complete 3 rigorous math and 3 rigorous science classes. Most of these courses must also have an end of course exam that can be used for acceleration and/or transfer.

What's next? As the FCR-STEM document is digested, it is hoped that policy makers, legislators, and industry partners appreciate that much of the first two goals are already being addressed by FL DOE. Therefore, they should focus their attention on establishing a sustainable infrastructure (goal 3) by tackling the challenging task of finding stable funding to adequately support and sustain the ongoing bold efforts being systematically implemented in our state. In addition to secure funding, sustainability requires that STEM industries must become personally and permanently engaged in the educational processes. There are many ways to do this, including financial incentives, mentoring, school partnerships, curriculum reviews, student and educator celebrations and more. A predictable, realistic funding formula, coupled with industry engagement will ultimately promote efficient and effective long term strategies and spawn a robust post-secondary population of students pursuing STEM careers, requiring further education.

To make all of this work, it is necessary to put the needed funding plan in place now, and then remember that the first data point reflecting full implementation of the new graduation requirements will come with the graduating class of 2017. We need to be patient, hold the course, and continue full support of the FL DOE programs and processes in place. The current efforts have built-in success indicators along the way to keep us informed and suggest corrections. Energy and resources should now be spent on program and process enrichments as well as adding strategic complementary programs which accelerate our successes.

What is FLATE’s role in this grand Florida STEM challenge? FLATE has supported a rigorous integrated approach to STEM in its curriculum, outreach, and recruitment efforts for K-12 students since its inception. All students need a strong STEM foundation no matter what they choose for their career path. Bringing students, faculty and industry together has always been one of our guiding principles behind everything we do. Since 2004, NSF, via FLATE alone, has invested nearly $6 million in supporting STEM education in Florida. Activities include STEM-based teacher and faculty professional development, ready to use curriculum modules based on Florida industries, implementation of school-industry partnerships, award winning curriculum development, support for technical programs and labs, awards and recognition for teachers, and providing financial support for relevant student experiences including robotics camps and industry tours. NSF has also provided significant funding directly to various Florida State Colleges and Universities in support of STEM-related educational initiatives.

On a different sTEm related front, please join us in celebrating the success of Lakewood Ranch students taking a lead in getting industry certified. Before you try your hand at the next sTEm-at-work puzzle, check out the article about Brooksville Elementary School and their use of our sTEm-at-work puzzles, drop in at the STEM educators corner to enroll for the STEM camp for teachers, or the FLATE Engineering Technology Institute. As we draw closer to the deadline, don't forget to submit your nominations for the 2011 FLATE Awards!