Like Liller’s tech ed class, the students excelled because they were allowed to think through ideas and suggest and test solutions. “They had ownership of their solutions,” she adds. “Traditional classrooms today aren’t necessarily allowing kids to learn these 21st century skills today.”

These are just two successful examples of ways that local schools are venturing beyond lecture and test curriculums to Remake Learning in the fields of STEM, science, technology, engineering and math. But while programs like these are recognized as the classrooms of the future, educators today face several challenges in implementing these programs successfully.

The $21 million regional initiative: STEM programs in 27 counties

The Carnegie Science Center recently released a study that addressed this issue, called “The Role of STEM Education in Improving the Tri-State Region’s Workforce,” conducted by Campos with funding from Chevron and support from Nova Chemicals.

“In our work at the Carnegie Science Center, we consistently hear concerns from corporate leaders about having a qualified workforce for the future,” says Ron Baillie, co-director of Carnegie Science Center. “Corporations need collaborative problem-solvers with excellent skills in science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM.”

Faced with a shortage of workers prepared for STEM-related professions, leaders are working to identify the barriers that prevent students from pursuing STEM careers. “We wanted to understand those barriers and how parents as influencers and kids discuss these things,” says Baillie.

The findings suggested several ways to tackle the problem regionally. The first addresses a lack of a general understanding of the wide variety careers available in math and science fields. Many parents don’t realize the earnings potential as a skilled welder, for example, says Baillie. Many urban and suburban parents, particularly, insist their kids prepare for college instead.

“This is really important because there are so many open positions in these STEM areas,” he says. “In Pittsburgh alone there are more than 22,000 job openings in STEM related fields. That’s one of the big ahas! The other secret is most of the major corporations in our region will often provide either all or partial support (to a student) for a four-year degree (in these fields). It could be a really nice pathway with the company paying the tab.”

Another other hurdle is the language barrier in the classroom. Schools today create artificial walls with language by describing a class as “advanced” or “rigorous.” “It’s become a barrier in education,” says Baillie. “There’s a fence you have to get over to get into the hard stuff. A lot of students veer off at that point. Imagine if there was a natural flow from one course into the next.”

Classrooms of the future need to address math and science in more of an inquiry based manner that allows students to work within teams in a project-based setting. This will facilitate career awareness, he says.

Another key finding highlights that rural areas represent the greatest opportunity for STEM education related careers in new industries. Programs like the ones in Beaver Falls and South Fayette are exactly what the region needs.

Another recent workforce development program in the region underscores the importance of all of this. This month Chevron Corp. committed $20 million to a regional initiative that will promote STEM education programs in 27 counties across Western Pennsylvania.

“We need to help people to see the path to these opportunities,” says Nigel Hearne, president of Chevron Appalachia. “I need to help my own son see the possibilities of certain skill sets. That’s how we can help as parents. It’s not about what we say but how we inspire our children to do something different.”

This story is underwritten by the Grable Foundation as part of the Remake Learning Initiative, in partnership with WQED, WESA and Pittsburgh Magazine.  See all the Remake Learning stories in NEXTpittsburgh and on our partners’ websites.


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