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VOL. 8 | NO. 20 | Saturday, May 9, 2015

Beautiful Minds

As STEAM students learn to solve problems, they just might change the world

By Don Wade

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Someday, a famous innovator’s biography may include the story of the first time she used a hammer – at age 4 or 5, at a private Memphis girls school, to pound on a strip of copper.

And how she then took that strip of copper and molded it into the shape of a heart, a tiara or a cool design that meant something to her evolving mind but that adults couldn’t identify.

The point being that this was the start for a great thinker. This was someone who would one day use some combination of science, technology, engineering and math – STEM – and art/design, which when paired with the others becomes STEAM, to make a life-changing contribution to the world.

“You never know,” said Allison Warren, who was the energy behind St. Mary’s Episcopal School’s recent “Tinker Fair” and is an emergent curriculum consultant.

The tale of this great innovator, then, would note that instead of beginning her formal education with artificial limits and prescribed “creative” assignments – say, everybody making a turkey out of brown construction paper before Thanksgiving break – she was encouraged to explore and take risks.

And it was here that her imagination naturally intersected with her desire to make something out of nothing, which later in life is a succinct definition of success.

“It wasn’t about the product. It was about the process, learning what tools can and cannot do,” Warren said. “It’s not about the cookie-cutter approach – something to take home and show.”

The Tinker Fair name was inspired by the character Tinker Bell, who in her day was an unwitting poster child for the STEM/STEAM movement.

Today, STEM has enough momentum that President Barack Obama recently announced more than $240 million in pledges to accelerate the study of those fields, $90 million of which would be earmarked to expand the opportunities to minorities and girls.

Increasingly, schools across Shelby County and the country are making STEM/STEAM a full-fledged course or, in the case of the Maxine Smith STEAM Academy in Memphis, an entire school for grades six through eight. So it’s a thriving narrative.

“In the movie, Tinker Bell is a tinkerer,” Warren said. “She takes lost objects and puts them together, makes things. You can have that fairy mindset, but also that power: ‘I can make things. I can do it.’”

Cleo Hudson was at the Tinker Fair with his 4-year-old daughter, Chance. He described her first experience with a hammer as “wonderful” and says she already wants to imitate what she sees her father doing around the house.

“She’s always like, ‘Can I help, Daddy?’ She loves to paint.”

‘I’m a happier person’

A little further down the educational line, at the Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, Nathaniel Garner is a student in teacher Brandi Stroecker’s sixth-grade STEAM class. For students to gain admission at MSTA, Stroecker said, they must be in the 65th percentile in math and English and have good conduct and attendance records. The school does not provide bus service, so it’s on the parents to get their children there each day.

St. Mary's junior kindergarten students dismantle consumer electronics at a Tinker Fair held at the school's Early Childhood Center.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Stroecker, 32, taught eight years at a school in a high-poverty area where she says there was little parental involvement. She notes the parental “buy-in” at MSTA and says that at her old school many faculty members had no interest in introducing STEM/STEAM.

“Honestly, there was pushback from teachers to not have laboratories and hands-on (scientific) investigations,” she said.

But listen to young Nathaniel Garner speak about his old school, which also had no STEM/STEAM curriculum, and life at his new school. Now, his daily routine includes working in groups with other students to begin getting a grasp on mechanical engineering by designing, building and improving the performance of a “hovercraft” that has balsa wood, rubber bands and plastic as its core components.

“In my old school, it wasn’t very hands-on. It was OK, I guess,” Nathaniel said. “Just do the work and get the grades. In general, I’m a happier person. That sounds crazy. But it’ll be the weekend and instead of wondering how many school days are left, I’m wondering how many days there are that I can enjoy school.”

‘The future of the economy is in STEM’

There is no debate about the future.

“The future of the economy is in STEM,” James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition in Washington, recently told Occupational Outlook Quarterly. “That’s where the jobs of tomorrow will be.”

Occupations related to STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – are projected to increase to more than 9 million between 2012 and 2022, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That would represent an increase of about 1 million jobs from employment levels three years ago.

Among the professions projected to have the strongest upticks in job opportunities: information security analysts (37 percent), statisticians (27 percent), petroleum engineers (26 percent), computer systems analysts (25 percent), software developers/applications (23 percent) and civil engineers (20 percent).

That is a partial list, but these jobs and others speak to the changing landscape, including the STEAM movement championed by the Rhode Island School of Design. At stemtosteam.org, the mission is defined as three objectives: “transform research policy to place art + design at the center of STEM, encourage integration of art + design in K-20 education (and) influence employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation.”

Loretta Jackson-Hayes, an associate professor in the chemistry department at Rhodes College, wrote a column for The Washington Post website on the subject, saying, “Our culture has drawn an artificial line between art and science, one that did not exist for innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs.”

Jackson-Hayes received her undergraduate degree at Tougaloo College, a liberal arts school near Jackson, Miss. At Rhodes, she says, students who sometimes begin majoring in a STEM field ultimately wind up majoring in philosophy or religious studies. She also says the ability to write and present findings is critical. There is, then, no such thing as wasted skills.

“What good is a scientific discovery if you can’t share it with the world?” she said. “Otherwise, you’re just mixing stuff up in the laboratory.”

A LEGO NXT robot following programmed directions scoops up wooden blocks in a STEM exercise in the halls of Collierville Middle School.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The ability to communicate is not undersold in the STEM class that April Robinson teaches at Collierville Middle School. Sure, there might be more excitement for students in building rockets and seeing which ones fly the farthest as part of a good-natured competition. But students also have to prepare engineering reports and compose PowerPoint presentations.

And increasingly, there is a real-world emphasis on projects. Students may be building from kits, but they are reminded that resources are finite.

“They compete to see which bridge is the most cost-effective but holds the most weight,” Robinson said of another lesson. “We apply cost to a lot of things.”

The salaries for STEM jobs can provide handsome payoffs even with just a bachelor’s degree. For example, in 2013 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that petroleum engineers earned an average of $132,320 per year, and aerospace engineers $103,870.

But The National Math + Science Initiative reported that 38 percent of students who start with a STEM major do not graduate with one, and as of 2009, 87 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering fields were held by males 25 and older.

Nationally, only about 21 percent of engineering students are females, says Divya Choudhary, director of graduate engineering and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Christian Brothers University. Choudhary notes that more girls are taking tougher science and math courses in high school, “But we’re not seeing that translate to STEM majors.”

This summer, Choudhary hopes to roll out the new STEM Center for Women & Diversity at CBU.

“It boils down to having enough exposure,” she said. “The earlier they know about this, the more their minds think in those directions.”

‘We just have to troubleshoot it’

Jackson-Hayes says she was fortunate to have “strong female role models” from her high school in Coldwater, Miss., on up. She always saw the possibilities.

Kellie MacFeggan, a seventh-grader at Collierville Middle, sees them not just from her STEM class but by watching her own family.

“Ladies bring design and a little more structure,” Kellie said. “I know my mom packing the car, she can do it better than my dad.”

For male and female students, there is a gigantic STEM/STEAM-driven world out there. Last year, Shelby County medical device manufacturers came together after three years of meetings to form the Greater Memphis Medical Device Council. One of their shared concerns: the lack of qualified workers in the local marketplace and a standard training and recruitment program to produce those workers.

Good jobs can even be obtained without a four-year degree, if the training is on target. In 2008, the U.S. average annual wage for the medical device and equipment was industry was $63,606.

“We’re talking about highly paid skilled machinists doing quite well after a two-year degree,” Ben Hutson, vice president of manufacturing at MicroPort Orthopedics, told the Daily News in 2014.

Nationally, more than 100 colleges and universities have committed to training 20,000 engineers; a coalition of CEOs also has pledged to enlarge high-level STEM education programs by an additional 1.5 million students in 2015.

Meantime, in a hallway at the Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, several students are on the floor, making adjustments to their groups’ respective hovercrafts. Perhaps they are engineers in the making, but for sure they are problem-solvers in the making.

“We just have to troubleshoot it,” said sixth-grader Rebeka Duckett, explaining that her group’s hovercraft kept making a hard turn. “So we had to add a rudder to it on one corner. It turned a different direction, so then we had to put it in the middle.

“We try to fix problems,” the young innovator said. “We don’t settle for, ‘Oh, it’s broken.’”

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