January 6, 2012

Mississippi answering STEM education call

In September 2011, the Defense Department released to Congress its annual report on the
nation’s industrial capabilities, which for DoD is a matter of national security. The reported
was grim.

...The science, technology, engineering and math workforce is beginning to retire, and replacing those workers “could be challenging due to declining interest in STEM as a career field, fewer STEM college graduates, and poor math and science proficiency in secondary education,” it said.

...Specialized skills, like protecting military satellite communications and intelligence payloads, “make the issue of a declining STEM workforce even more of a concern for the military space industrial base.” If lost, it would be costly and time consuming to rebuild.

...DoD was not the first to raise the alarm. In 2005 the National Academies' report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" warned that if steps aren’t taken to improve investments in science and technology, the United States would continue to slip against global competition. Five years later, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5,” found the nation slipped further.

...The United States is 48 in quality of mathematics and science education, 27 among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering, 20 in high school completion rate and 16th in college completion rate among industrialized nations.

...The problem has bothered Dr. Hank M. Bounds, Mississippi’s commissioner of higher education, for a long time. He oversees the state’s public four-year university system, and for four years was state superintendent of education.

...“It's incredibly important that we produce more STEM graduates,” he told the Sun Herald in October 2011. Universities are working on retention, recruiting and encouraging more students to go into STEM fields, but the groundwork as to be done early.

...“Part of having more students prepared to go to college is starting early,” Bounds said. “Eighty percent of brain development occurs in first four years of life. The first day of college starts in preschool.”

Mississippi efforts

...For Mississippi, the need for STEM workers is becoming clear. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce study, “Enterprising States 2011,” ranks the state 20th in science, technology, engineering and math job growth. Some educators see the national problem as an opportunity for Mississippi. A combination of state and local programs, along with the interest of federal agencies, could single out the state.

...Mississippi has had an increase in the number of STEM students over the past few years. In 2006-07 there were 4,856, and the next year there were 5,075. In 2008-09 the number of students reached 5,144, and the next year it went all the way up to 5,712.

...“Obviously, we are seeing a big increase in the number of students enrolled in STEM classes,” said Mike Mulvihill, Bureau Director, Office of Career and Technical Education, Mississippi Department of Education.

...The state has a program designed for 9th grade students called the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Applications, a program that prepares students to engage in future academic and vocational courses of study in high school, community college, and universities.

...Students in STEM Applications complete study in technology literacy, the design process, emerging technologies, computer‐aided design, sustainable design and technology, power and energy, robotics simulation, financial and economic literacy, and workplace skills for the 21st century.

...“STEM education is very important to the future of Mississippi,” said Kendra L. Taylor, program supervisor for Technology Education and STEM Cluster, Mississippi Department of Education. “Introducing students to STEM occupations will ensure a future workforce that can compete globally.”

...The MDE’s Office of Career and Technical Education has two career pathways that lead to STEM occupations: engineering and polymer science. There are 21 engineering program areas and nine for polymer science.

...“There are plans to increase the number of engineering program areas by 14 over the next two years. The number of polymer science program areas has increased yearly as well,” said Taylor. They are offered in grades 10 through 12 at career and technical centers throughout Mississippi. The curriculum is written to industry standards to ensure the content taught and equipment used is relevant.

...“I am proud to say that we have some great programs that exist in both polymer science and engineering,” she said, singling out Gulfport and Leake County Career and Technical Center for engineering, and Petal, Hattiesburg and Madison County Career and Technical Center for polymer science. And there are others, she said.

...“I believe that this does in fact afford Mississippi an opportunity to single itself out because polymer science is a small, yet growing field. The University of Southern Mississippi is nationally known for its post-secondary degrees within the field of polymer science. They worked closely with all nine of the secondary program areas within the areas of teacher training, student competition, and internships,” Taylor said.

Beyond scientists

...Mulvihill said that while STEM education is important for creating a cadre of scientists and engineers, it’s also important for those who enter non-science fields.

...“From a broad perspective, the state of Mississippi is starting to move towards higher wage, higher skill jobs,” said Mulvihill, and those industries that are already here use technology more than in the past.

...“When people think of STEM, they don’t think of manufacturing,” Mulvihill said. But they should. He said shipbuilding is a perfect example of what’s happening. New ship designs, the incorporation of even more technology into vessels and the use of new, advanced materials is changing the way ships are built.

...In addition, a lot of jobs moving into the state in the next few years will be heavy users of informatics, he said. They’ll want tech savvy workers.

...“We need our folks to use some imagination,” he said about schools that have traditional vocational education programs. Making STEM a part of those programs will be crucial.

South Mississippi

...Hundreds of South Mississippi students have been introduced to careers in science, technology, engineering and math thanks to the vision of educators helping create a sci-tech culture here.

...The interest of South Mississippi is not surprising, given that it’s the home of NASA’s Stennis Space Center, multiple university activities and the Air Force’s technology training center at Keesler Air Force Base.

...Creating a local pool of sci-tech talent is important from an economic development standpoint. The more the culture of science and technology is developed, the more the region piques the interest of companies.

...That became obvious to Rick Saucier, career technical coordinator in the Hancock County School District, during a visit some time back to Port Bienville Industrial Park, where companies are using composites. He knew polymer science and other STEM-related programs, were key.

...Hancock County today has engineering, robotics and polymer science programs. The county’s approach is that every 9th grader takes STEM training.

...“In that class, they’re learning different skills, basic robotics, Blackboard on line, basic computer aided drawing, introduction to STEM,” Saucier said.

...Hancock County did not let lack of funding hold them back.

...Saucier said that when the state was going through a high school redesign four or five years ago, it put in a STEM program at pilot sites. “Not every school was allowed to pilot. We wanted to wait and see.”

...For two years the high school redesign was funded by the state Legislature, but the third year was not. Now it’s up to the school districts to provide funding. The RCU at Mississippi State rewrote the curriculum to keep the costs low and make it more affordable.

...“We knew we had to do something,” said Saucier, who had computers that were donated by Lockheed Martin upgraded and modified to use the necessary software. A grant covered the cost of some additional teacher training. Student work desks were created from modular systems used in previous classrooms.

...Hancock County’s STEM program was put in place last year, and 300 students in the 9th grade went through the program. This year more than 300 additional students are taking the STEM-related classes.

...“We’re at the starting point, just two years into it,” Saucier said. “Right now we’re in our infancy. We’re addressing it and we’re growing. You have to have a starting point,” he said. “I’ m encouraged.”

...Students from the Hancock County, Bay St. Louis-Waveland and Pass Christian school districts attend the Hancock County Career Technical Center, which has 13 different technical programs.

Enter the robots

...Brandon Warner, 19, of Gulfport, isn’t sure exactly what he wants to do when he finishes school, but he does know it will be in mechanical engineering. Currently enrolled in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College but planning to transfer to Mississippi State University, he was 13 or 14 when he went to a robotics summer camp.

...A burning desire? Not really, just “something interesting to do over the summer,” he said.

...But a seed was planted, and today Warner, who was homeschooled, is serving as a mentor for younger kids who are interested in robotics. He saw the value of mentors early on.

...“After all they gave me, I’m giving back,” he said.

...Schools in South Mississippi participate in the international FIRST Robotics Competition, designed for budding science and technology students.

...David Fava, Director of Career and Technology Education at the Gulfport High School Technology Center, said Gulfport’s team, Team Fusion, was the first team in the state and every year involves about 30 students. Gulfport has had a team for 13 years, and it involved students from multiple districts.

...“We don’t let just a school name stop us from inspiring students,” Fava said. It’s open to students who attend public and private schools, and those who are homeschooled.

...A decade ago there were three Mississippi teams involved in FIRST. Today the number is 13 from Mississippi, 42 from Louisiana and 14 from Alabama. But it may be the outreach of the students themselves that is particularly significant. Team Fusion sponsors a robotic tournament with Dupont, Vex Robotic, involving 30 teams from 10 schools from five districts. The tournament kickoff is in September and the tournament itself the second weekend in November.

...The number of fourth- to eighth-grade students involved in the competition is 250 to 300.

...Andy Gunkel, a teacher of engineering and robotics at Gulfport High School, said he’s seen an increase in interest in STEM. He’s particularly pleased one of his students is a girl who said she just loves engineering.

...Fava said that in classes like Gunkel’s, the students are able to see that the technology they use all the time can be powerful tools to use in problem solving.

...There’s a three- to four-week Summer Robotics and Invention Camps that was started in 2001 for students coastwide. Between 2001 and 2004, over 480 students participated. Many went on to participate in FIRST.

...The Vex summer robotic camp is designed to reach elementary school children. Mentors come from the high schools. “We have a very good cohort of students come all the way through summer camp as elementary school kids, get involved in FIRST and have become mentors in post secondary site.”

...The Vex tournament started in 2006 with five teams from two schools and 30 kids. It’s grown to 30 teams from 10 different schools this year, some 250 students.

...Fava credits Stennis Space Center with the success of the robotics program.

...“NASA has always worked closely with Team Fusion from its inception with engineering mentors and NASA's own brand of inspiration. Who doesn't want to work with rocket scientists?” he asks.

...“For the last five years, Team Fusion has been honored to be the NASA Stennis Space Center house team, which enables the team to play a more active role in outreach through sponsorship funding and STEM related NASA focused activities,” said Fava.

...What may be the most remarkable mission of Team Fusion is its willingness to inspire and help individuals excel in STEM. The team has assisted and mentored FIRST teams in Ecuador and Israel over the 2004 and 2005 competitions, and in 2008 the team assisted a team from New Zealand start a program. Team Fusion also helped create a team in Brazil, and two members learned Portuguese in order to help. – David Tortorano