It’s been an uphill battle for Jeff Weld, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Shortly after Weld, the executive director of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council took over the position in 2011, a 2012 survey showed that only 26 percent of respondents knew what the acronym STEM stood for. By 2015, the same survey showed that number had risen to more than 50 percent.
STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is a tool that school districts around the country are using to raise awareness about the importance of promoting competitiveness in science and technology development.
Newton High School was selected as a STEM BEST award recipient this year, and they’ll receive a $25,000 grant for the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. STEM BEST, an acronym for Businesses Engaging Students and Teachers, is a program which aims to connect high school students with local businesses.
NHS was one of 19 schools selected for the grant out of a pool of 31 schools. Weld said the fact that Newton students were already participating in the district’s Fledge Innovate program, which is similar in scope to the STEM BEST program, was a strong factor in the decision to award the grant to NHS.
“They’ve already invested in this, and they already have a classroom created,” Weld said. “All of the major ingredients are in place.”
Started last year, the Fledge Innovate program is designed to provide students opportunities to work with local businesses in the community. The hope is that students will learn how to apply multiple skills simultaneously to solve problems, which Weld said is a critical component for life outside of high school.
“I’m looking at the future of education, we’re blazing a trail,” Weld said.
Newton High School principal Bill Peters said the school will match the $25,000 grant with funds of their own, with a goal to renovate a classroom at the high school where the classes are held. Peters said plans call for a larger, interactive whiteboard in the classroom, to make it easier for students to project their ideas when they meet with local business leaders.
“We don’t want it to be a traditional classroom, we want to have a place where our students can work on technology, and take on projects from the community,” Peters said. “This will give us a place to work together.”
Peters credited the hard work of NHS teacher Karla Cazett, who wrote the grant, and continues to advocate for opportunities for students at the high school. While this class won’t replace traditional education at the high school, Peters said it’s a good supplement to help students navigate the world after high school.
“We want to get the kids into these industries, they get a real life experience,” Peters said.
Weld identified three goals for the grant; the school needs to use the money to buy time from local businesses to figure out how to change the curriculum to meet the program’s goals, reconfigure a classroom to meet the needs of the program, and to allow teachers to travel and network with other STEM BEST teachers across the state. With its Fledge Innovate program NHS has already gotten the ball rolling, Weld said.
“Imagine the algebra teacher working with a roofing company to solve for X and calculate square footage of a roof, or a chemistry teacher working with a local paint manufacturer,” Weld said. “It’s not just a chapter in a book.”
Getting students connected with local business has other advantages too, Weld said studies have shown that students who participate in these types of program are more likely to forge connections within the community and to stick around after they graduate, reversing the “brain drain” that’s plagued smaller communities for years. For NCSD board president Travis Padget, that’s good news.
“I think to connect our students with our local businesses lets them see that there are opportunities local, and regardless of whether they stay local it gives them an opportunity to further their education,” Padget said.
Padget said he was excited about the grant, which will allow the district to keep developing the high school’s existing program, and he’s glad to see students engaging business leaders in the community.
“I just think to involve local students in local business problem solving is a remarkable opportunity,” Padget said. “I think it’s great for business to have local talent, it gives students a chance to put their education into practical terms.”
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