Superintendent's Notebook: Building STEM-minded students

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In December 2012, a White House news release predicted the United States would need approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than were projected to graduate by 2022.

This statement about science, technology, engineering and mathematics professions is as true today as it was then, as the need for professionals in these fields continues to rise.

According to the U. S. Department of Commerce, in 2015 there were 9 million STEM workers in the United States – about 6.1 percent of all workers, up from 5.5 percent just five years earlier. Employment in STEM occupations grew much faster than employment in non-STEM occupations over the last decade (24.4 percent versus 4.0 percent, respectively), and STEM occupations are projected to grow by 8.9 percent from 2014-2024, compared with 6.4 percent growth for non-STEM occupations.

STEM workers also command higher wages, earning 29 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts in 2015.

In response to this need, Regional School Unit 5 continues to expand STEM education. Over the past couple of years, we have transitioned from traditional computer labs in the elementary schools to STEM classrooms, expanding the opportunities for our students to be inspired and engaged in more authentic learning.

The focus to teach needed technological skills in a more engaging manner is resonating with students and staff alike, because STEM-based labs require collaborative problem solving and critical thinking.

Recently, our School Board had the opportunity to visit STEM classrooms at the Durham Community School. Board member Maddy Vertenten reported that she and Chairwoman Michelle Ritcheson were challenged to program a small robot, giving them an introduction to the skills we expose our students to in engineering and computer science.

As she approached the task, she initially felt unsure, because like so many women she never considered herself a good math or science student. The teacher didn’t offer assistance, but watched as the two of them grappled with the task at hand.

“We felt happy and excited by our ability to figure it out, and the teacher verbally reinforced our accomplishments,” Maddy said. “That was a huge a-ha moment about one of the ways education has evolved since I was a young student. I see how in this kind of learning environment, kids emerge more confident and excited about their ability to learn.”

Facilitating learning and promoting student discourse are currently two areas of focus in RSU 5. Additionally, we are partnering with community groups to expand and enhance STEM education.

The Freeport, Pownal and Durham Education Foundation has generously funded 11 engaging STEM-related projects over the last four years in each of our schools. This has included having a Family Engineering Night, creating a high school competitive robotics team, and hosting a guest scientist at Durham Community School.

By exposing our students to STEM and giving them opportunities to explore STEM-related concepts, we hope to ignite new passions that may lead them to pursue a job in a STEM-related field after they graduate from Freeport High School. This will fill a need in our local and global economy.

As we continue to improve and expand our STEM offerings, we hope it will inspire and support every learner by challenging minds, sparking creativity, and nurturing passions.

Becky Foley is superintendent of schools in Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport-Durham-Pownal). She can be reached at foleyb@rsu5.org.

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