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It's Not Geeky

William & Mary program shows kids that careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) are anything but geeky.

A student demonstrates the robot he built at the 2011 Dahlgren summer academy at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division. Photo Credit: Jake JosephWhen Jake Joseph talks about the future of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers in the United States, his expression and the tone of his voice are grim.

“We have a problem in this country,” he says. “There are not enough students going into science, math, engineering and skilled technical trades. And it’s a growing problem — one that has no easy answers.” With fewer people moving into those jobs, Joseph is concerned that the nation’s future competitiveness and security are at risk.

The engineer turned high-school science teacher turned STEM trainer is immersed in efforts to reverse that frightening truth. As the assistant director of the STEM Education Alliance, a center housed in the College of William & Mary’s School of Education, he works daily with professionals, middle-school teachers, school administrators and students to inspire today’s young people to one day become leaders in these critical fields.

“We know kids start to lose interest in science and math when they reach middle school,” says Joseph. “It’s the time when they start to do fewer hands-on activities in their classes. We also know that the media and society in general do not always provide kids with a positive image of scientists, mathematicians or engineers. What we do is provide positive role models and opportunities for those kids to make STEM careers seem interesting and fun.”

Gail Hardinge M.Ed. ’85, Ed.D. ’96, the Alliance’s director, is excited about the difference it makes for students and the country’s future. With her two additional staff members, she coordinates efforts to reach STEM professionals, teachers and students across the country.

“The heartbeat of what we do is providing professional development,” says Hardinge. They hold approximately 10 training sessions throughout the academic year, partnering with Department of Defense (DoD) engineers and scientists as well as middle-school teachers, helping the pairs coordinate their efforts to reach out to students and let them see these careers in an appealing, hands-on manner.

Training engages participants actively, pairing teachers and students with STEM professionals from DoD laboratories. Groups are assigned a variety of real-world problems and are asked to solve them using robots. “We’ve used a variety of scenarios,” says Hardinge. “One lesson was based around an oil spill. We asked them to develop and design a robot to move the oil tanker to land.”

A student and a STEM professional collaborate on a project during the First Annual Hampton Roads STEM Summer Academy  at Corporate Landing Middle School in Virginia Beach. Photo Credit: Karen HogueHardinge says the activities that get students the most excited are frequently the ones they can relate to what they see on television. “But when a STEM professional is in their classroom, students often look up to them as mentors and quickly become interested in that person’s specific career,” she says. “They want to hear them talk about those careers and what they do.”

One of the most interesting things Joseph and Hardinge see the students learn in their programs is frustration tolerance, a key part of any STEM professional’s day-to-day activities.

“They learn to be frustrated when something doesn’t work, but they go back and try something different,” says Hardinge. “At the end of the program, when you ask them, ‘what was the best part?,’ they often say, ‘Solving the problem.’”

In addition to the programs and training held throughout the school year, the STEM Education Alliance coordinates summer academies in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, giving middle-schoolers additional access to STEM professionals in a hands-on and active summertime enrichment format. Both programs were well attended in 2011, and expansion is anticipated in 2012.

An Issue of Education

Some may wonder why William & Mary, a university not traditionally considered to be a STEM school, is involved. Hardinge explains: “We’re involved at the William & Mary School of Education because this is an education issue,” she says. “We educate through collaborative teacher training and through integrating career awareness in all that we do. We help connect the dots so that students realize, ‘I can grow up to do this as my job.’”

Joseph points out, too, that they serve as the translator between the bright and creative engineers who need help translating their ideas for STEM activities into a solid pedagogy that will work in the school systems.

Cases like the oil tanker situation used in training also provide a valuable opportunity for Hardinge and Joseph to show teachers and school administrators how the STEM awareness programs can wrap around entire curriculums. “We give SOL [Standards of Learning] parallels for teachers to help integrate the ideas into the classroom,” says Hardinge, pointing out that the oil tanker training session could incorporate disciplines outside of STEM, including the social sciences, for example.

Until this fall, middle-school principal Seidah Ashshaheed ran King George Middle School in rural King George, Va. In her role, she was responsible for bringing the Alliance and STEM professionals in to work with her students and faculty. One of the many reasons she jumped on board was because she quickly saw that William & Mary’s staff understood how to sell the ideas to busy teachers and administrators. “In the first year, the STEM Education Alliance came prepared, outlining how the 7th-grade robotics program was already aligned to the Virginia Standards of Learning sciences and mathematics objectives,” she explains. “This was fantastic and really took a lot off the front-end pressure of planning for teachers who are often times tasked with having to align and develop curriculum to fit their current schedule.”

Now the principal of Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School in the much larger city of Falls Church, Va., Ashshaheed is eager to work with the Alliance again. “I am very passionate about the STEM curriculum because it provides a plethora of opportunities for engaging, interactive, hands-on experiences,” she says.

It’s not just about educating the students, either. According to Joseph and Hardinge, research conducted by University of North Carolina Assistant Professor of School Counseling Dana Griffin ’95, Ph.D. ’07 shows that many rural school kids get most of their information about careers from their teachers. “So we give the teachers the information they need to be well informed,” says Joseph.

Students build towers that will be put the test to see how much weight it can bear at the First Annual Hampton Roads STEM Summer Academy. Photo Credit: Karen HogueIn one of their many efforts to reach out to school staff — not to mention students and parents — the Center produced Explore, a magazine featuring a variety of STEM professionals. Explore includes stories on researchers like John Rinn, who dreamed of being a skateboarder and snowboarder in the 9th grade and finished high school with a 1.9 grade-point average. He got a D on his first junior college chemistry test, but he later went on to earn a doctorate in molecular biophysics at Yale University. Rinn’s advice for teachers as quoted in the article? “The kids who are the biggest pains often contain the greatest surprises.”

“Sharing real-life experiences about how they picked their careers makes these goals seem personal and attainable to a student,” says Hardinge.

In addition to being available to school teachers and counselors, Alliance trainers send the publication home with students and encourage them to look it over with their families. “We ask them to show it to their parents and ask them to look at it and pick out a career that interests them,” says Hardinge.

A second edition of Explore is currently in the works. Hardinge and Joseph hope to have it focus on the continuum from skilled labor through college, realizing that a decline in the workforce is anticipated in labor trades as well.

Hand-in-Hand with the Department of Defense

Hardinge has been the director of the STEM Education Alliance since it started in 2004 with a $1 million contract from the DoD to provide training for the National Defense Education Program (NDEP) Virginia Demonstration Project (VDP). The VDP works with seven Virginia school districts in efforts to encourage students to explore STEM career opportunities. Although outreach to the schools occurs today in a variety of ways, the DoD partnership is still their primary focus.

In the past seven years, contracts have been renewed and the partnership with the DoD has grown significantly. In October 2011, the STEM Education Alliance at William & Mary secured another $2.5 million sole-source contract with the DoD that will allow them to expand their outreach efforts and training for Navy scientists and engineers who volunteer in schools.

The recent DoD contract will give the Alliance an opportunity to extend its reach by offering follow-up training sessions to scientists, engineers and teachers via online distance-learning methods.

“We will provide a combination of face-to-face and distance training, and we’re developing online modules for the Department of Defense,” says Hardinge. “Our goal is to broaden the reach beyond the labs. For example, it’s very costly for us to conduct all follow-up trainings, and the bigger we become, the more demand there is to have face-to-face. So, what we’re going to do is combine initial face-to-face sessions with follow-up distance sessions, and they’ll be synchronous. So, we’ll provide synchronous and asynchronous training.”

Joseph will conduct the Alliance’s first pilot synchronous training this fall with the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in Charleston, S.C., as a follow-up to training they did there in July.

Seeing a Difference

Since its inception, William & Mary’s STEM Education Alliance has served more than 19,000 students — 5,000 in the past year alone — in seven school districts and has worked with four Naval commands. In that time, they’ve developed their own evaluation system — the STEM Attitude and Awareness Survey — which has been tested on more than 5,000 Virginia students and will grow thanks to the recent DoD contract award.

According to Hardinge, a recent survey of students upon their high-school graduations showed that those who had participated in a STEM program middle school indicated that they were more likely to pursue a career in science, math or engineering.

Students demonstrate a rocket launch during the 2010 Dahlgren Summer Academy.  Photo Credit: Karen HogueFurthermore, surveys following the STEM summer academies show that students who participate have a clearer understanding of how to use classroom knowledge in real life, talk more to their parents about careers, have a better understanding of what a STEM professional does and how to become one, and report an increased likelihood that they would choose a career in science.

The sheer number of students interested in participating is growing more quickly than the center can anticipate. “One of the things I find most remarkable about our program is that we’re continually oversubscribed,” notes Joseph. “More people want to do this than we can keep up with. We’ll have a program intended for 100 people and we’ll end up with 132.”

Ashshaheed says the small city she previously worked in was well aware of the impact a STEM program made on their children. “The community knows that every 7th-grade student will receive the STEM curriculum,” she says. “The school board has definitely referenced King George Middle School’s STEM program at meetings. Imagine that — an entire community being cognizant that their children will be exposed to engineers, scientists, mathematicians and educators, and that they will participate in a hands-on robotics curriculum for at least two weeks. There are definitely more students engaging in conversations about potential STEM careers.”

William & Mary’s STEM Education Alliance is making that level of difference with a surprisingly small staff (which includes two full-time and one part-time staffers) and with an eye on tightening down their expenses. Of the $5 million they have received in government contracts as of fall 2011, $1.3 million has been directly returned to the schools through teacher stipends and STEM materials. In addition the grant has funded teacher professional development and evaluation, and paid for summer academies, allowing students to participate for free and paying a stipend to teachers.

Middle-school principal Ashshaheed has no doubt that the STEM Education Alliance makes a significant impact on her students. She recalls one particular moment when she walked into a 7th-grade collaborative math and science classroom and witnessed firsthand an engineering light bulb go off in a student’s head.

“As I was walking around observing the various stations, I heard a student bellowing, ‘I told you we needed more torque,’’ she remembers. “When I made my way to the station, I remember seeing the face of the visiting engineer. He was all smiles. As he leaned in shaking his head in agreement, he simply stated, ‘Yes, more torque wouldn’t be a bad idea.’”

Stories like these keep the STEM Education Alliance at William & Mary so busy — and keep school administrators and the DoD so happy. It’s peace of mind in a changing world for some, says Ashshaheed, adding, “To know that every student (in my school), no matter the ability level, is afforded the opportunity to participate in this curriculum is the most exciting piece of information to me as a middle-school principal.”

Reasons to become a Scientist, Technologist, Engineer or Mathematician

Everything the Alliance does centers around encouraging today’s middle-school students to follow educational pathways that will lead them to a wide world of interesting and unique — not to mention necessary — STEM careers. Their Explore magazine lists eight key reasons to pursue these jobs:

(8) These careers are fun.

(7) You’ll explore cool places.

(6)  You’ll get to play with awesome toys.

(5) Anybody can play.

(4) You don’t have to be a genius to be a great scientist.

(3) Jobs are plentiful and pay is exceptional.

(2) You WILL have a life outside the lab.

(1) You’ll strengthen our nation and improve the world.