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STEM education push transforming LI schools

Schools across the nation are pushing for more

Schools across the nation are pushing for more involvement in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) development within the school system. At the Brookhaven Technical Center, hands on courses such as carpentry, nursing, dental assistance, and animal care are taught to high school juniors and seniors. (Oct. 24, 2012) Credit: Johnny Milano

The country's push to bolster science, technology, engineering and math education -- widely known as STEM -- is starting to transform public schools nationwide and is being felt across Long Island.

More students, from elementary grades on, are seeing these topics woven throughout their school day and are participating in hands-on projects that highlight how they play a role in our daily lives, educators across the Island said.

Students also are taking math and science Regents exams earlier than ever before to improve their chances of passing and ready themselves for tougher courses.

Their teachers are being trained in support of the effort, and some local districts, such as Oyster Bay-East Norwich, are employing science specialists to supplement regular classroom instruction.

Other systems, including William Floyd, are hiring coordinators to create whole STEM programs or are shifting existing administrators to do so.

At the state level, the Board of Regents is contemplating a separate diploma for students focusing on STEM education, as well as those following a path in career and technical education, or CTE. The board is waiting on a study by Cornell and Harvard universities about possible course requirements, to be completed this winter, before moving ahead.

If approved, the changes could be among the most significant to the state's diploma program in decades.

The current national emphasis on STEM comes partly from research comparing students in the United States to those abroad, finding deficiencies -- particularly in math and science.

Through the years, methods to address these problems have been varied and scattershot.

But the current administration's initiative is targeted and sweeping: President Barack Obama wants to raise the rigor of STEM coursework, strengthen the skills of teachers who lead these classrooms and increase participation among minorities and female students. At least 10 federal programs promote STEM education, including Race to the Top.

Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to the president on education policy, said the plan has an economic driver: There's a chronic shortage of STEM-skilled workers in the United States. Related occupations are expected to grow, with 2.6 million openings by 2018 in careers such as engineering, health and medicine, among others.

"We know our ability to innovate and be creative as a country really relies on tech jobs that require heavy STEM skills," Rodriguez said.


Regents work in 8th grade

The William Floyd district began mandating Regents math and science courses and exams for eighth-graders five years ago, superintendent Paul Casciano said. Previously, the Regents courses only were available to eighth-grade honor students.

"There were two purposes," he said. "We had to raise our expectations for our students. And we wanted to raise our graduation rate."

The district plans to open a STEM academy within the high school by 2014, and hopes the coursework will interest a broad swath of students.

Elsewhere, elementary students in Sayville are meeting with astronauts, pilots and engineers to learn more about aeronautics, while parents in Floral Park-Bellerose have been working with the district for two years and have created a 10-week "introduction to robotics" program for young students.

The ninth-graders at Massapequa High School's Ames campus are designing three-dimensional objects for their new 3-D printer, and students in a STEM Engineering program at Baldwin High School shadow professionals at Northrop Grumman Corp. and National Grid, school officials said.

Tom Rogers, superintendent of Nassau BOCES, said the focus on STEM will spur more partnerships with Brookhaven National Laboratory and North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System as students move to careers in aerospace, software engineering, biotechnology, homeland security and energy.

It will also bring about a greater emphasis on elementary math education, "which is uneven now and ripe for improvement," he said.

In the Oyster Bay-East Norwich district, second-graders in Kristina Kolb's class already are amateur scientists.

Recently, they built their own anemometers, which are used for measuring wind speed. The children's simple tools, crafted from Popsicle sticks and Styrofoam cups, taught them important lessons about the scientific process.


Touches on other subjects

As they stepped outside their school on a recent morning, they held the fragile devices high above their heads, standing on the tips of their toes to grab the breeze. Asked what she did to participate in the experiment, Emma Feldman, 7, of Oyster Bay, said, "I did some of the gluing and a little bit of everything."

Though she and her classmates were disappointed by the wind that morning -- "It was slow," Emma said with a shrug -- they reported their results with enthusiasm.

The second-graders' work isn't confined to the science experiment; they also record their findings. The results will be published schoolwide for the first time this year. Through that, the project not only touches on core science and math concepts, but also encourages improvement of reading and writing, said science and technology teacher Regina D'Orio.

High school students who take BOCES courses are seeing their subjects seep into one another as well. A nursing student, for example, will find health-related themes in his or her other courses, said Gary D. Bixhorn, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

"Technology has tied all of these disciplines together," he said.

As these changes take shape, state officials are examining how they might modify graduation requirements.

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., who calls himself a "strong advocate" of the varied diploma plan, said the coming Cornell-Harvard study will bolster his position.

"The argument will be strengthened by the findings of this study," he said. "No question."

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also has supported the idea, telling the Regents in a recent letter that hundreds of upstate manufacturing jobs have gone unfilled because companies can't find qualified candidates.

In one iteration of the state's diploma plan, students no longer would be required to pass a global studies and/or U.S. history Regents exam, although they still would have to complete the courses.

King said the purpose of STEM and career-technical education isn't to deter students from pursuing the arts, law, public service or education, "but we want to make sure students interested in STEM have access to it."

Asked if a focus on STEM and career-technical education might pigeonhole students into a particular field at an early age, he said it would not, adding, "We have to make sure we are preparing our citizenry to tackle challenging issues like global warming, and we need to be sure we are preparing our workforce for the jobs of the 21st century."

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