Local school districts invest in STEM

Laurel Mountain Elementary School first-grade students could be found excitedly making cars out of construction paper and plastic straws March 6.

Students blew on the car to propel it forward, learning concepts such as force, momentum and gravity when the cars ran off the table.

This lesson in physics and manufacturing was part of Engineering Day at Laurel Mountain in Round Rock ISD, where first- through fifth-grade students learned the basics about designing, building and testing a machine from scratch.

"We're exposing the students to the principles of engineering," said Steve Ziegler, a volunteer with Discover Engineering Central Texas, which encourages engineering education and helped organize the event.

Engineering Day is one example of how schools in Austin, Pflugerville and Round Rock ISDs are encouraging education in science, technology, engineering and mathematic, or STEM, curriculum. District officials point to increasing workforce needs for skills in those disciplines and say STEM skills will only become more relevant in an increasingly technologized world.

A July 2014 study by the Brookings Institute, an economic and political think tank, backs up those assertions, finding 10,754 job postings related to STEM professions in the Austin-Round Rock metro area in the first three months of 2013 alone. Experts say that number is only growing.

A rising need

Sheri Bonds, director of Career and Technical Education at RRISD, said when she was an agriculture science teacher in the district five years ago there was a major push for science and technology-related classroom instructions.

She said when the state decided to use career clusters in 2013, or groupings of classes focused around career choices, in public education it became more evident STEM would increase in relevancy.

"We really started in Round Rock to implement engineering and architecture classes, those things you typically think of when you think of STEM," she said.

Ryan Merritt, PISD director of Career and Technical Education, said the district has always placed an emphasis on science and math, but in 2012 it began emphasizing STEM as a whole. He said that is when the district started implementing initiatives such as Project Lead the Way, an engineering-based curriculum schools throughout the country use, and a geometry and construction course in which students use math skills in a real-world setting.

"That's when we stepped up our game in the STEM business," he said.

Araceli Ortiz, assistant professor of Engineering Education in the College of Education at Texas State University, said educators have better methods of teaching STEM.

"We needed to have the research to prove there were specific ways of teaching that could be more effective," said Ortiz, director of the LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research. "Now that there is more research we are seeing a lot more active learning taking place in the classroom."

Local initiatives

When trying to find classes related to STEM in Austin, Pflugerville and Round Rock ISDs, a student does not have to look far. All three districts have endorsements, or groupings of classes related to an area of study, focused on STEM. Within those endorsements are career clusters that focus on the different areas of STEM, such as information technology or architecture and construction. However, the districts' efforts related to STEM extend beyond state-required teaching curriculum.

Bonds points to RRISD's computer science programs and Stony Point High School's participation in a national solar car challenge as unique STEM-related endeavors within the district.

Merritt said Project Lead the Way—in which RRISD also participates—and the Geometry in Construction class are two initiatives PISD has. He said the Geometry in Construction class was developed by teachers who wanted to teach real-world applications.

"[The course's founders] wanted to be able to answer the question students often ask, 'Why are we learning this?'" he said.

Merritt said a capstone project for the class includes students building a cabin or a community pavilion in a city park.

AISD's Department of Career and Technical Education offers career pathway courses in digital electronics, civil engineering, aerospace engineering, advanced biotechnology and computer science, CTE Executive Director Annette Gregory said.

"We know that most STEM careers require higher education degrees. It is our hope that through these middle school and high school courses we can prepare students with the necessary skills that will allow them to successfully complete similar courses at the post-secondary level," she said. "Additionally, it is our goal to provide opportunities for our students to develop workforce skills and to be exposed to multiple STEM careers."

College readiness and beyond

Lisa Windolph, an engineering teacher at McNeil High School in RRISD, said she has witnessed students work through college using the computer-aided design modeling skills they learned in high school.

"That's a job skill you can put right on your resume," she said.

Windolph said the engineering program at McNeil High School has led to students majoring in engineering in college as well as jump-starting their careers, but the program caters to all students and allows them to explore career options.

Merritt said in all of PISD's technical education classes the emphasis is about how students will use the skills they learn the rest of their life regardless of career or college choice.

"It's really focusing in on being lifelong learners and learning how to learn," he said.