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It’s not rocket science

Full STEAM ahead: Kids learn about science and tech at Green Valley Library.

Full STEAM ahead: Kids learn about science and tech at Green Valley Library.

Actually, it kind of is. STEM education is all the rage — and as important as ever. Are our schools ready to shape tomorrow’s scientists and engineers?

Our education system has got a serious case of STEM fever. STEM? STEM is the latest buzzword in education. It stands for science, technology, engineering and math, but the zeal it inspires among educators and economists borders on the religious. And for good reason: In a world that’s increasingly driven by tech, from smartphones to self-driving cars to social media, STEM education is considered the brainy boot camp for the skilled workforce we’ll need tomorrow — actually, the workforce we need today.

But it’s not just about teaching third-graders how to code or mentoring middle-schoolers in a robot competition. STEM is a philosophy of education as much as pedagogy.

“They’re not just learning math out of a textbook, but they’re learning math by applying it to a problem in a project that they’re working on, whether it’s building bottle rockets or growing plants and seeing how they respond to different conditions,” explains Jessica A. Lee, lead author on a November Brookings Mountain West and Brookings Institution report, “Cracking the Code on STEM: A People Strategy for Nevada’s Economy,” about the importance of STEM training and education for Nevada’s economic future. “When it’s done really well, it’s really just bringing everything together, and that helps students realize what the point is.”

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Never mind the economic future. Actually, STEM education (and its arts-inclusive sister, STEAM) is important for Nevada’s economic present. And though local educators are making small but promising steps toward building 21st-century curricula rich with science and math, it looks like we’ve got some way to go before achieving liftoff.


Green shoots Some of the valley’s forays into STEM are happening well outside the traditional classroom. Take Green Valley library, where on a typical Saturday you might see a roomful of kids making their own circuit boards. Green Valley Library Manager Stephen Platt put together the class series, called Generation STEAM Presents, with Bill Tomiyasu of local makerspace SYN Shop. The hands-on classes offered at various Henderson-area libraries teach problem-solving and analytical thinking, and cover everything from renewable energy and electronics to physics and aeronautics. And, perhaps surprisingly, art.

“If you want to make something cool, you have to have the artistic aspect to it as well,” Tomiyasu explains. “The artistic angle gets kids interested in it because if you’re just learning facts and figures of a particular area in math, you would never know how to take that math and put it to something more creative, like launching a rocket into space.”

Private schools are also instituting large-scale STEM and STEAM programs on their campuses. The Henderson International School, for example, began integrating a STEM curriculum into its classrooms two years ago and integrating STEAM this school year. It manifests in lessons about things as simple as gardening — but these lessons go well beyond watching seedlings sprout. The children plant seeds in a clear container, measuring their growth and documenting it with drawings, descriptions and iPad photos. They also “dissect” some seeds to learn more about them, and watch the landscaper plan an irrigation system for the garden. Students as young as 3 or 4 are being exposed to integrated, hands-on learning that includes basic engineering and real-life applications through lessons like these.

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Henderson International School Principal Chris Besylko says they’ve seen achievement and enthusiasm rise with the launch of more STEM and STEAM lessons at the school. “It’s a lot more than just memorizing a bunch of vocabulary words in science for an assessment or learning a bunch of algorithms in math class and applying them,” Besylko says. “(The hands-on learning) makes the experience that much more meaningful, and it really builds the curiosity, the critical thinking skills, design thinking skills, resilience, perseverance, all those things we want our children to have.”

Blinded by scienceThe Clark County School District is also working to bring more STEM and STEAM into classrooms throughout the district. Eldorado High School is starting a program on video game technology and web design, and the district has struck an agreement with to allow more schools to offer coding courses. There will be teacher training this summer on computer programming to help make these courses available throughout the district. And of course, there are science- and tech-oriented magnet schools throughout the district with star programs from engineering at Rancho to medicine at Western.

But are the teachers ready to take it to the next level? Much of the district’s focus is on training teachers — that is, teaching teachers to teach STEM — a lot of which happens in the education department at UNLV. Currently, there are no UNLV classes focusing solely on STEM or STEAM teaching; rather, it’s blended with other courses as a method of math and science instruction. Taking a cue from other colleges, Micah Stohlmann, assistant professor in UNLV’s Department of Teaching and Learning, says he’s interested in starting conversations with other departments at UNLV — such as, you guessed it, the science and math departments — to collaborate in the classroom in order to cross-fertilize their wisdom and methods. “There is a benefit to it just because you get to hear from the science people about more of the science content and then math people are able to teach that content better. They kind of draw on each other’s knowledge that way,” he says.

Because there aren’t any state STEM standards, the school district doesn’t provide STEM-centric professional development for teachers. However, says Mary Pike, the director of science, health and physical education within the school district’s Instructional Design and Professional Learning division, teachers in the career and technical education programs in engineering, biotechnology and computer science programs do attend professional development courses tailored to their specialties. As part of their core training, they also attend summer classes offered by nonprofit Project Lead the Way. The classes are free for teachers and paid for by the school district. Which brings up the biggest obstacle to upgrading the way we teach science and math: money.


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STEM sticker shockIs the current slate of STEM training and education enough for the kind of growth predicted for Nevada in the Brookings report? Not even close.

“There’s definitely a need for more STEM curriculum,” says UNLV’s Stohlmann. “That’s one thing that’s trying to be developed just because the inclusion of engineering in K through 12 education is relatively new. With that focus, there is a need for well-developed and researched STEM curriculum.”

One of the obstacles is, of course, money. Indeed, talk is cheap, but STEM is pricey. STEM and STEAM classes often cost more than other ones because of their hands-on nature and special materials. According to the school district, at the low end, a computer-aided drafting and design class costs about $80,000 for equipment, software and training; the average class in agricultural science and skilled and technical sciences costs around $200,000 to equip; mechanical tech and computer-integrated manufacturing programs can cost upwards of $500,000 to equip. STEM training for Project Lead the Way certification costs from $20,000 to $25,000 per teacher.

Fortunately, a few organizations outside the public school system are working to generate money for STEM and STEAM education. Non-profit Gathering Genius: Nevada STEM Coalition has been working since 2006 to improve STEM education into the state. For instance, the group has raised money for various events that have brought stakeholders together to help pass the 2013 Senate Bill 345, which created the Nevada STEM Advisory Council. 


We … need … brainsSo why all this fuss about STEM? Because Nevada’s already facing a shortage of these skilled workers — particularly in business information technology ecosystems and health and medical services — and the longer we wait, the farther we fall behind.

“Looking at those target industries that the state economic development folks have really zeroed in on as growth areas, they’re going to need a certain kind of workforce, and the systems now aren’t in place to really help prepare people for those jobs,” says the Brookings Institution’s Lee. “So it’s about getting people ready for that next generation of jobs that’s going to be coming up very soon.”

Even now, many of these STEM jobs are available in Nevada, but companies are having problems getting the positions filled. According to the Brookings report, “while 70 percent of job openings in these two sectors require STEM knowledge, less than half require a four-year degree (though the most in-demand positions in IT do tend to require one). And yet job posting data reveal that open positions take longer to fill in these two industries than in others, which suggests that employers are keen to hire but struggle to find qualified workers.”




When hired, those workers are well-rewarded. STEM jobs also typically pay more than non-STEM jobs. Individuals with a four-year degree in STEM occupations within the state’s target industries earn about $77,000, where others with similar education in non-STEM jobs within the same industries earn about $51,800, according to the report.

“There are a lot of really good, well-paying (STEM) jobs that people can get with just a year or two of training after high school,” says Lee. “That is an important component of this, too. It’s not just for college grads.”

The Brookings report ultimately proposes a two-pronged approach to getting Nevada STEM-ready: on the public side, aligning education’s goals and industry’s needs — and asking some tough questions about the state of our school system. On the civic side, Brookings floats the idea of a statewide STEM marketing campaign, creating internships to give Nevadans the work experience they need and, says Lee, “just generally supporting new innovative approaches to education, whether it’s different classroom tools or curricula or public charter schools, just keeping all options on the table and really supporting what works best for different communities.”

That civic component serves as a reminder that a lot of the education process — even STEM education — happens outside the classroom, and would-be “teachers” are everywhere. Besylko points out that teachers at Henderson International School encourage their students to work with STEAM and STEM at home.

“We’ve challenged kids with their families sitting at the dinner table with popsicle sticks and rubber bands and marshmallows, to try to build a catapult without instructions,” he says.

Platt and Tomiyasu’s Generation STEAM Presents class series at Green Valley Library is aimed at kids aged 8 to 17, but they’ve seen parents learn just as much from the classes, and they frequently hear stories about families who continue to mess around with the gadgets and challenges at home. Some parents have even volunteered to teach a class. Talk about being blinded by science.

“Once these classes are over,” says Platt, “I hope this is just the beginning.”