School-Business Partnerships Target STEM Subjects

By Andrew Trotter — June 19, 2007 6 min read
Garret Thompson, 13, walks around an airplane at the Commemorative Air Force Museum as part of his camp experience.

Students in Mesa, Ariz., almost literally fly through their math lessons, thanks to a pair of programs that blend mathematics with flight simulators, aeronautics, and even mock space-shuttle missions.

The programs stem from a long-standing partnership between the 72,000-student district and the Boeing Co., which has a plant in Mesa that builds the U.S. Army’s Apache helicopter.

Austin Clark, 12, reaches toward an airplane wing at an aviation camp in Mesa, Ariz. The school district there is working with the Boeing Co. in the kind of partnership to improve math and science instruction that more companies are pursuing.

“We’ve taken the curriculum out of isolation and made it real-life,” said Donald E. McMahon, the special-projects coordinator for the Mesa district, referring to the Boeing partnership. “Kids are encouraged and feel comfortable to go into the math-science realm.”

Amid corporate concern about what some perceive as a looming workforce crisis, efforts are under way to spur more businesses to follow the lead of companies such as Boeing. And school-business partnerships centered on the so-called STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and math—are attracting particular attention at a time when companies are pleading with Washington to expand the federal H1-B visa program, which allows them to temporarily hire skilled workers from abroad.

“We’re seeing more industry partnerships in schools, some forming around new schools,” said Lydia M. Logan, the executive director of the Washington-based Institute for a Competitive Workforce, a branch of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We can’t and shouldn’t be only looking at a way to bring the best people from other places; we should be able to educate our workforce here.”

Complement to Policy

Of course, some corporate giants have strongly pushed STEM education and workforce development for years—both in lobbying and school partnerships. But in a bid to extend such efforts to more small and medium-size companies, the national school improvement group Achieve launched a Web site this month that offers a collection of resources to help businesses plan their partnership efforts with schools.

Meanwhile, some companies, including the Bayer Corp., a German drug maker with its U.S. headquarters near Pittsburgh, and the accounting firm Ernst & Young LLP, based in New York City, have recently released reports on best practices in K-12 education and successful business partnerships with schools.

Austin Braley, 12, spells “captain” using the aviation alphabet—with “Charlie” for C and “alpha” for A, and so on—in a game during the Mesa, Ariz., schools’ two-week aviation camp. The Boeing Co. supports the camp with donations and volunteers.

Susan L. Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy for the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based group of top business leaders, said local partnerships are a good complement to businesses’ policy work.

“We have found, when we talk to members of Congress about the need to make sure the U.S. attracts and retains the world’s best and brightest—to change the rules on immigration and visas—it’s very important to couple that with improving K-12 and higher education in the U.S.,” Ms. Traiman said.

The new Achieve site focuses on partnerships that promote college and work readiness, competency in STEM disciplines, and data-driven education. Those priorities were chosen because of their importance to businesses, said Sandra J. Boyd, the vice president for advocacy and outreach at Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit organization formed by governors and business leaders that focuses on standards-based school reform.

The goal of the site—Toolkit for Effective Business Involvement in Education Reform—is “to make sure we have graduates who are college- and work-ready, that we have enough people who studied in the STEM disciplines,” Ms. Boyd said.

The site, which features case studies of school partnerships by large companies, is supported by business-oriented organizations based in Washington, including the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Ms. Logan said she sees more partnerships around the STEM fields in a context of professions and the workplace. Among several examples she cited is BMW’s funding of college scholarships for teachers who will teach math and science in secondary schools in Greenville, S.C., where the German company makes cars.

In Sacramento, Calif., the chamber of commerce has an education affiliate called Linking Education and Economic Development, which has teamed up with the Los Rios community college system, Sacramento’s workforce board, and five local hospitals to help create a public high school focused on health fields.

Marla Clayton, the school improvement facilitator at the 250-student Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School, said the students there take a standard high school curriculum, plus specialties that include a required four-year medical-science program. The outside partners provide such resources as speakers and visits to health-related facilities. Six out of 10 students plan to enter the health field, either after college or directly out of high school, Ms. Clayton said.

Stephen Jordan, the vice president and executive director of the Washington-based Business Civic Leadership Center, said businesses are recalibrating their support of local communities—totaling about $7 billion annually—toward education, at the expense of other priorities.

“Businesses are starting to look at supplementing the specialized skills and knowledge base of their particular industry—pharmaceutical guys are supporting life science, biology, and chemistry; manufacturers are supporting [computer-aided design] skills; [media companies are] really going deep on the literacy issue,” Mr. Jordan said. “What folks are starting to realize is that globalization is going to dictate that folks have to be more and more competitive.”

Adding Relevance

For their part, some education leaders caution that both schools and businesses must guard against corporate involvement that approaches interference.

“It doesn’t feel good when you get chambers [of commerce] telling schools how to run schools,” said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, which represents local school boards.

Still, she said, “healthy business partnerships with schools are important because they help make schools relevant,” she said. “Kids drop out where school is not relevant to their lives.”

In the Boeing-Mesa partnership, the company first helped the district set up a helicopter-flight simulator in 1997, proposed and designed by retired Boeing engineers, and a 5th grade curriculum that for six weeks teaches science and math through aviation themes and pilot skills.

The company built a second simulator in 2000 so all 4,000 5th graders in the district could participate.

And in 2005, Boeing helped the district revamp a space-simulation program for 6th graders by replacing an old, parent-built plywood space shuttle with a steel mockup, also designed by the retired engineers and equipped with wireless computers. The company also paid for training teachers in how to use the craft effectively. The partners are now building a second shuttle simulator.

For students who have remedial needs, the company has paid more than $200,000 over three years to train teachers for a math-tutoring program for students at eight inner-city elementary schools. Boeing employees volunteer as math tutors in the program.

In a career survey by the district of this year’s graduating high school seniors, 50 percent of those who had been in the original version of the shuttle program said they planned to pursue math, science, or technology careers as a result. Of those who took part in the aircraft-simulation program, 35 percent had the similar plans, Mesa’s Don McMahon said.

For Mr. McMahon, the reality for schools is that “we can’t bury our head in the sand thinking we can do it all—we need help.”

“These companies need help, too,” he said.

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Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation at
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Education Week as School-Business Partnerships Target STEM Subjects


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