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Ohio Initiative Adds to STEM Momentum

$12 million Gates grant funds public-private partnership on high-tech careers.
By Linda Jacobson — January 31, 2008 6 min read
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In the latest state-level effort to promote science and technology education, Ohio has launched a new public-private partnership intended to connect 100,000 students over the next 10 years to high-tech careers aimed at helping to fuel the economy.

The The Ohio STEM Learning Network, announced by Gov. Ted Strickland and legislative leaders Jan. 30—and funded through a $12 million grant from the Seattle- based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—will begin with five regionally located schools focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, skills.

The schools will serve middle and high school students from low-income and minority communities. The Battelle Memorial Institute, an international research-and-development firm with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, will manage the network.

“We can all agree that creating jobs and building our economy are essential and vital to our progress as a state,” Gov. Strickland, a Democrat, said in a statement released jointly with Senate President Bill Harris and Speaker of the House Jon Husted, both Republicans. “With Ohio’s focus on STEM education, we are laying the groundwork for a highly competitive 21st-century ‘solutions’ revolution.”

Ohio is among a number of states where policymakers—at a time of increasing economic gloom—have latched onto STEM initiatives as a key to boosting U.S. competitiveness around the world and providing corporations with top-notch employees.

For example, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is proposing this year to spend $1 million on scholarships to train teachers in math, science, and technology.

“We will not have more scientists, engineers, or skilled technicians without great teachers encouraging students to enter those critical fields,” the Democrat said during her State of the State address last month.

Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, also a Democrat, is calling on legislators to approve $5 million for a STEM center at the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls. The program would allow the state to double the number of math and science teachers and “make sure every high school graduate is ready for the jobs of the future,” the governor said.

And in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, wants to increase the number of charter schools with an engineering theme as part of his plan to expand of the supply of engineers educated in the state. Specifically, he wants to raise the number of schools allowed under the San Diego-based High Tech High program, which now operates four high schools, two middle schools, and one elementary school. That program is approved for a maximum of 10 schools.

‘Innovation Agenda’

Meanwhile, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, used her term as the chairwoman of the National Governors Association last year to launch Innovation America, a project that includes improving STEM education programs in schools.

“These subjects are the foundation for innovation, and provide students with the skills needed to solve problems, experiment, and increase their awareness about the world around them,” she said last year when she testified in Washington before the House Education and Labor Committee.

STEM Proposals

Governors in a number of states used their annual legislative addresses to emphasize education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Proposals include:

CALIFORNIA: Expansion in the number of charter schools with an engineering focus.

IOWA: $5 million for a STEM center at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, which would allow the state to double the number of math and science teachers in the state.

KANSAS: $1 million in scholarships to train teachers in mathematics, science, and technology.

MISSOURI: $750,000 to train almost 1,000 new math and science Advanced Placement teachers and to help more than 6,000 Missouri students take Advanced Placement tests; $5 million to create 100 “technologically advanced” classrooms and to equip 300 classrooms with advanced math and science curricula.

WISCONSIN: Requirement of three years of math and science for high school graduation.

SOURCE: Education Week

A document released by the NGA at the end of 2007, “Building a K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education Agenda,” likely served as the inspiration for many governors’ proposals this year.

“We’ve noticed that the governors are coming at this in a very interesting way—with an innovation agenda,” said Julie Bell, the education program director for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

Lawmakers, however, are more concerned with the “nuts and bolts of it all,” she said, such as whether there are enough teachers for such programs, and whether students are staying in those fields.

Opening special high-schoollevel programs, devoted to various aspects of science and technology, is one way that states are giving students opportunities far beyond a typical curriculum. Students at such schools often participate in internships and work on projects that affect their communities.

At Bioscience High School in the 25,000-student Phoenix Union High School District, in Arizona, students work alongside scientists and academics in the city.

In Hawaii, 13 high schools on four islands now have STEM “academies,” meaning that the courses are taught in an integrated way and applied to problems facing the state in areas such as marine biology and the creation of alternative energy sources. After-school robotics courses will also begin this summer at several middle schools in the statewide district.

“It’s an experiential-learning approach,” said Jeffrey Piontek, a science specialist in the Hawaii Department of Education. “It gives the kids an opportunity to look at things from other perspectives.”

In Ohio in fall 2006, the Battelle Memorial Institute helped launch Metro High School, a math- and science-focused high school in Columbus operated by an education consortium representing the 16 school districts in Franklin County. The school also served as the site for Gov. Strickland’s announcement last week.

The new Ohio initiative will also include STEM “programs of excellence” at elementary and middle schools throughout the state. The fiscal 2008 state budget already includes $6.5 million for that aspect of the network, and another $6 million for five STEM schools. In addition, the state has targeted $100 million for college scholarships in STEM subjects.

“Ohio has really taken this on as a major focus,” said Terry Krivak, the executive director of the SMART consortium in Cleveland, Ohio. SMART—an acronym for Science and Mathematics Achievement Required for Tomorrow—is made up of 50 northeastern Ohio school districts and aims to improve K-12 performance in those areas.

Course Requirements

Such state-level efforts are also being supported by the federal government. The America Competes Act, signed into law last August by President Bush, includes incentives to help school districts retain highly qualified math and science teachers and to expand STEM programs. (“‘Competitiveness’ Bill to Aid Math, Science Is Signed by President,” Aug. 15, 2007.)

While the law authorized more than $800 million in new STEM-related spending for K-12 schools and college undergraduate programs in fiscal 2008, according to a congressional estimate, lawmakers have not yet approved funding for many of those programs. A report to Congress by the Academic Competitiveness Council last year estimated that the federal government currently spends more than $3 billion on STEM-related programs annually, much of it through the National Science Foundation.

Related to the emphasis on integrating math, science, and technology skills, states are also continuing to increase the number of years students need to take science and math courses to graduate from high school.

In his State of the State address, Wisconsin Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat, proposed that students in that state take three years of math and science instead of the two that are now needed for a diploma.

According to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, 38 states now mandate—or are phasing in—at least three years of math as a graduation requirement. Thirty-three require at least three years of science, or will add that mandate soon, according to the ECS.

But Mr. Krivak of the SMART consortium suggested that high school may be too late to start implementing STEM programs in order to get students interested. Instead, when younger children are learning, for example, about firefighters or police officers, they should also be introduced to radiologists or medical technicians to help “create mental images” of science-related fields, he said.

“Sometimes, you start where you can have the quickest return on impact,” in terms of students’ moving into higher education and the job market, he said. “But if you were going to do this long-term, you would want to start in elementary and middle school.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2008 edition of Education Week as Ohio Initiative Adds to STEM Momentum

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