A new, extensive collaboration focused on Charleston County schools hopes to be a national model for preparing students from kindergarten through college for STEM-related jobs.
The potentially multi-million dollar effort involves high-profile partners from across the country. More than 20 officials representing those groups met this week in Charleston to hammer out specifics on what they would contribute.
“This is phenomenal,” said Janet Simmons, president/CEO of a cyber-security company based in Maryland, who participated in the meetings. “You could see it all coming together.”
STEM is short-hand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and there’s been a national emphasis on preparing more students for careers in those fields.
The number of STEM-related jobs is growing, and employers such as Simmons often struggle to find qualified workers. The country will have 1.4 million computing-related jobs by 2020, but only 400,000 computer science students to fill them, according to Code.org. Some also say STEM is key to the nation’s global competitiveness in the future.
That’s part of the impetus behind this new partnership, and those involved say the long-term solution is education. That means building a pipeline of STEM exposure and interest in children as early as kindergarten.
Charleston County School District doesn’t have a grades K-12 STEM curriculum, but teachers collaborated this summer to create one. The framework they developed was analyzed and developed further this week.
“This fills a vacuum that we have in the district,” said Lou Martin, the associate superintendent who oversees high schools. “We don’t have any program that addresses this specifically.”
Martin described the effort as being made of three tiers, with the broadest being an emphasis on math, science and computer programming across grade levels. A secondary focus is cultivating an interest in the specific area of cybersecurity, and a third is engaging Historically Black Colleges and Universities and district minority students in STEM.
What makes this different than other STEM-related efforts nationwide is that it’s a systemic and strategic approach to affecting a diverse K-12 population, said Tony Baylis, director of the Office of Strategic Diversity Programs with the federal Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory based in Livermore, Calif. Baylis attended this week’s meetings.
“What this is all about is creating a workforce for tomorrow,” he said. “Our hope is we develop talent as we move forward.”
The partners include: the U.S. Department of Energy; the federal Livermore lab and the federal Sandia National Lab; some HBCUs in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia; SPAWAR and the county school district.
The federal Energy Department is expected to be the partnership’s major funding partner, and the plan is for each group to participate in tangible ways. Officials from the federal labs and SPAWAR might visit Charleston schools to teach STEM-related lessons. College students enrolled in the HBCUs could intern with the labs, work with K-12 students, and hopefully seek employment in STEM jobs.
Officials said a confluence of factors resulted in Charleston being the target site for the collaborative. For one, Cynthia Anderson, a senior advisor at the federal energy department and a native of Charleston, is on an inter-governmental assignment to the school district to help with its STEM efforts. The state has invested in cybersecurity, and some of its HBCUs, such as Voorhees College, Allen University and Benedict College, also have received federal STEM grants to build a pipeline between their students and federal labs.
Baylis said he was impressed by the facilities and resources behind the school district’s new Lowcountry Tech Academy in the former Rivers Middle School campus on King Street. The STEM-focused program is starting its first full school year in a building that has undergone more than $25 million in renovations.
“That’s not typical across school districts,” he said. “There’s a potential to get off the ground running.”
Sarah Earle, who leads Lowcountry Tech, said she was excited to be a part of what she called a “first of its kind” collaboration. Some of her teachers and students already have visited the labs, and she said she looked forward to the scholarships and opportunities that could be developed.
“We’re past the beginning phase and we’re into the action stage, moving into the implementation stage,” she said. “The work is incredible.”
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.