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Ramping Up Efforts to Prepare Students for STEM Careers

With nearly one in four high school students interested in a STEM career, new efforts are underway to prepare them for the growing number of jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

This week, the New York City Department of Education announced a partnership with the National Math and Science Initiative and the College Board to expand access to Advanced Placement courses, with a heavy emphasis on STEM-related courses. The NYC Advanced Placement Intiative will provide resources to offer 120 new AP courses in 55 New York City high schools. It will give approximately 2,500 students the opportunity to take AP courses in biology, calculus AB, envrionmental science, statistics, English literature and composition, and U.S. history.

To help students manage these challenging, college-level courses, the initiatiive will include access to online homework and test-prep materials, as well as four Saturday test-prep sessions in the spring.  New AP teachers will receive additonal instructional support, as well as coaching and mentoring through the National Math and Science Initiative, which is a public-private partnership that backs efforts to improve student performance in STEM subjects. To encourage enrollment in the new AP courses, the College Board will supply high school counselors with informational materials to be used for outreach and parent communication.

The hope is that by better preparing students in STEM areas in high school, they will be more likely to ready to pursue these majors in college.

Change the Equation Event

Yet, not all STEM-related jobs will require a four-year degree. Many students will be able to get the training they need by participating in career-technical education or through community college programs, according to an expert panel gathered on Tuesday at an event sponsored by Change the Equation, a coalition of business leaders promoting improved STEM education.

For instance, many high-paying jobs for skilled technicians and operators are needed alongside engineers to work in modern manufacturing, according to the coalition. The discussion focused on whether both these type of employees needed to travel the same K-12 pathway. While coursework may look different for students who want to be "college-ready" versus "career-ready, there was concern voiced about locking kids into certain tracks.

Academic and CTE teachers should work collaboratively so students can have a foundation in high school that prepares them for either a college or career pathway, said Kate Blosveren Kreamer, the associate executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium.

"That comes down the principal, allowing for flexible scheduling, common planning time, and how they structure their [professional learning communities]," she said.

As students' interest change, they should have the option to shift their plans of study, added Kreamer.

"On a policy level, we're making some progress, but more needs to be done," she said. "Until college- and career-readiness is really defined more comprehensively in policy, you are going to have tension."

Another panelist, from the Pathways to Prosperity Network, said that career and technical education is a relevant and meaningful way to connect kids directly to the world, and that it needs to be rigorous.

"We don't think of CTE and academics as 'either or' but we see it as engaging because it's very hands on," said Amy Loyd, the executive director of the Pathways to Prosperity Network, a collaboration with Jobs for the Future and Harvard Graduate School of Education, that is working to build STEM career pathways that are aligned with the needs of employers. "Ultimately, it's good pedagogy not just to have aquisition of knowledge, but applicaton of knowledge—to apply what you are learning into doing. We see it as adaptable."

Students in STEM courses are learning skills that equipp them for an array of career possibilities, Loyd added.

The panelists emphasized the need for career exploration in middle school or earlier to get students thinking about various options and what coursework they need to pursue to meet their goals.

Kreamer said students should think first of the career they want and then work backwards from there to build a plan of courses, certfication, and work experience they need to get there.

"What we do now is put them through K-12, they go to college, and then figure out what they are doing with very mixed success," she said. "I think students would be in a much better place if they ruled things out in high school versus having to wait until they are in college to realize a career is not for them."

Students look at teachers and counselor for career advice, but often teachers' exposure and knowledge of current workforce demands are limited, the panelists noted.

Rob Valentine, the global director of STEM Education for the Dow Chemical Co. told the audience at the Change the Equation event that his company believes industry, government, and business need to work together to demonstrate there are multiple career pathways from high school to postsecondary to build a skilled workforce. To open up students to the ideas of various STEM jobs, Dow Chemical employees are visiting schools to talk about their careers with students. Valentine said he is trying to change atttitudes about CTE to get students and families to embrace it as a viable option.

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