EBR schools, industries high on STEM education

Nov. 21 was a night off for the basketball teams at Scotlandville High School in Baton Rouge. That left the gym floor free for glowing worms, discharging Tesla coils and free-standing towers made from macaroni and marshmallows.

With the help of volunteers from ExxonMobil, students from grades 3 to 12 were learning, through these demonstrations, different strands of science and math, including polymerization, buoyancy, conductivity and geometry.

Educators in years past would lump together all this activity and call it a science night. Now, they call it “STEM Night.”

Instead of being taught in isolation, STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — seeks to integrate these subjects into a unified, cross-disciplinary field of study.

Under the umbrella of STEM, ExxonMobil is one of a growing number of companies teaming with educators and community leaders to encourage students to delve more deeply, and at a much younger age, into these subjects.

President Barack Obama has made STEM a key focus area, funding a variety of initiatives aimed at meeting this anticipated demand for workers as well as sparking innovation in hopes of stimulating job growth.

At the same time, growing unemployment among recent college graduates in STEM fields has prompted some researchers to question the STEM frenzy and wonder if the focus is misplaced.

In the past five years, four public schools in Baton Rouge — Kenilworth Science & Technology Charter, the Mentorship Academy, Lee High and Scotlandville Middle — have made STEM their primary focus. More schools are heavily increasing their focus on this area.

STEM can be a broad term. Lee High and Mentorship Academies, for instance, have incorporated digital animation into their programs, in the process adding art to STEM to form STEAM.

“We need to make sure that our definition of STEM is as broad-based as it can possibly be,” said Bernard Taylor, superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, which operates three of those four schools.

Taylor offered several examples of topics not thought of as STEM that could be treated in a STEM-manner.

“If a student was interested in law, then would it not be good to give the student an idea of what intellectual property looks like, what copyright looks like,” he said. “I think we’re at the tip of the iceberg what all that could look like.”

The Nov. 21 STEM event involved not just Scotlandville High, which ExxonMobil has worked with for years.

The energy giant also brought in feeder schools Scotlandville Middle, which became a dedicated magnet school in 2009, and Progress Elementary, which recently was rebuilt at cost of $18 million.

The demonstrations were the fruit of weeks of classroom work that involved not only ExxonMobil, but also training from master teachers in methods of teaching math and sciences. The company is paying LSU’s Cain Center $225,000 over three years to work with these three schools as part of larger $450,000 grant to improve science-related education in north Baton Rouge.

It’s a higher level of involvement than the company has attempted in the past.

“What we were doing at the beginning, we would judge science fairs and do demonstrations,” said Stephanie Cargile, an ExxonMobil spokeswoman and a coordinator for many of the company’s education initiatives. “It’s become more interactive, so now we work more with the principals and we’re in the classrooms.”

Industrial expansion in Louisiana, especially in the Baton Rouge and Lake Charles areas, is increasing demand for skilled workers versed in fields that fall under STEM. Those types of jobs continue to grow nationwide; a recent Georgetown University study predicts 26 percent growth in STEM jobs this decade.

However, Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California and a prominent expert in reading instruction, wrote a letter in June to Education Week magazine critical of the focus on STEM.

He noted a National Center for Education Statistics report in May that found that 16 percent of high school students in 2009 had taken calculus, up from just 7 percent two decades earlier. Why are so many students taking calculus, he wondered, pointing to 2010 research that only 5 percent of new jobs require calculus and 2007 research showing that there are three qualified graduates for every science and technical job opening.

A group called Change The Equation is pushing back against such arguments. The group is a White House-backed organization of business leaders promoting STEM education.

In a Sept. 11 piece for Huffington Post, that group’s executive director, Linda Rosen, said critics focus too much on jobs that require a four-year degree and not enough on the steady growth in new jobs that require only an associate’s degree or a technical certification.

“The fact that STEM jobs have fared so well even through the recession is telling,” Rosen wrote. “If anything, demand will only intensify as the economy picks up.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution in June had a similar take on the subject in its “The Hidden STEM Economy” report. It found that Baton Rouge and New Orleans metro areas ranked first and third respectively in the number of STEM jobs available to people without a bachelor’s degree. And these jobs pay well, an average saary of almost $50,000 a year in Baton Rouge, compared with just over $30,000 a year for other jobs available to people with less than a bachelor’s degree.

In its annual economic outlook forecast, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber found that the Baton Rouge metro area will need more than 20,000 new skilled workers between 2013 and 2016, second only to the Lake Charles area. Statewide, the forecast puts that figure at more than 86,000.

Liz Smith, a policy and research project manager with BRAC, said companies in Baton Rouge are increasingly interested in working with educators to find ways to meet this demand.

Kim Fossey, an educator who got her start in speech and language development in West Feliciana Parish, became involved in technology education and in the mid-2000s became involved in a Texas-wide effort to foster STEM education across that big state.

“In 2005, not a whole lot of people were talking about STEM,” Fossey recalled.

In 2010, she returned to Louisiana, where she has continued working in STEM initiatives.

Her latest work is with the new Foundation for East Baton Rouge Parish School System, which raises money to augment education in the system’s 80-plus schools. The foundation has adopted STEM as a focus area, sponsoring chess and robotics competitions, among other things.

Fossey came to the foundation with the idea of participating in something much bigger, the US2020 City Competition. The competition, sponsored last summer by the Clinton Global Initiative, aims to attract a million new mentors for children, to the point where STEM mentoring is a professional norm similar to the way pro-bono work is common in the legal profession.

The competition is pitting applicants representing 52 cities against each other. The goal is to dramatically increase the number of professionals in STEM fields who become mentors to minorities, girls and low-income students, all groups underrepresented in science and technical fields.

On Nov. 12, the foundation was named one of 13 finalists. The winners, three to five of them, will be announced in February. They will tap into a $1 million pool of money as well as other services to supercharge their local STEM mentoring efforts.

“One of the biggest factors in getting kids interested in STEM is real, worthwhile interaction with professionals,” said Fossey.

Kathryn Kissam, president of the foundation, is a relative newcomer to Baton Rouge from Virginia, where she was used to more opportunities for science education.

“Clearly this community is ripe with opportunity for STEM,” she said.

She uses her son, Cole, an eighth-grader at Glasgow Middle, as an example. Although he grew up in a family of people employed in science fields — Kissam’s husband works for Albemarle — the boy was not initially interested in pursuing the family avocation. That changed when he got to second grade and watched a frog being dissected. Later, he recalled a cool demonstration involving fire by a mentor from ExxonMobil when he was in sixth grade at Glasgow.

“I got in school and I saw that I liked it,” Cole said. “It wasn’t based on my parents.”

Sara Kallish, an ExxonMobil engineer, said as a young woman in a male-dominated field she gets noticed by young girls in the schools she visits. “They see me as a role model, and they say, ‘This could be me in the future, I could be this girl.’”

Gaylynne Mack, executive director of the Big Buddy Program, which has long experience in mentoring, is part of the coalition of business and community leaders pursuing the US2020 grant.

She said true mentoring involves a weekly commitment by an adult that lasts at least a year.

“If we are going to do mentoring, let’s use best practices,” she cautioned. “Until we make a real commitment to young people, we won’t see a change.”