Across the country, STEM education is inextricably tied to job opportunities, economic growth and community vitality. Opening these opportunities to more students—including students from diverse backgrounds—is an important component of Battelle’s STEM education initiatives. That’s why Battelle supports programs like Metro Schools (Metro) in Columbus, Ohio and the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network (TSIN).
A Hands-On Approach to STEM in Columbus, Ohio
Metro Early College High School was founded in 2006 with support from the Education Council, Battelle and The Ohio State University (OSU) to bring high-quality STEM education to a wider range of students across Central Ohio. Metro Early College Middle School was opened with 100 students in 2013—now Metro Schools now serve about 870 students in grades 6-12 from 25 Central Ohio districts.
“We know we need a more diverse group of workers in STEM,” said Meka Pace, the Superintendent of Metro Schools. “We need more students of color and more women going into these fields. We need diversity of thought and experiences to propel STEM forward. And we can’t wait until they get to college to start providing support and outreach to expand access for this diverse group in the STEM fields. It really starts at the elementary level by teaching soft skills. Our schools were created to give kids who didn’t have these opportunities a chance to be exposed to high-quality STEM programming and explore a wide range of career options.”
Next year, they will move the middle school and high school to a new, larger campus to serve more students, and their current building will be converted into their first elementary school. The new middle and high school will be housed in the former Indianola Middle School, fully renovated through a combination of public and private funding. “With Battelle’s support, we will finally have a full feeder pattern,” Pace said. “We are really excited to expand our footprint to the elementary level and cannot wait to see the impact to the STEM pipeline from students participating in a full STEM K12 educational experience.”
About 50% of Metro’s students come from the city of Columbus, and about 64% of their students come from minority communities. Pace said, “We’re really focused on expanding that pipeline for our students.”
At Metro, they have the opportunity to explore a variety of career options, with rotations in career pathways such as allied health, computer science and engineering. Through a dual enrollment program with OSU, students graduate from high school with two full years of college credit, giving them a solid head start toward college graduation. Students also have opportunities to shadow professionals in many careers and complete hands-on capstone projects with the support of local businesses and community partners. “We want them to understand that there are many different possible directions within each career pathway,”
Pace explained. She estimated that about 30-40% of Metro students go on to work in STEM fields, while many others are crafting their own unique pathways by incorporating the STEM skills and mindsets they have honed into careers such as law or teaching.
Creating a Pipeline to STEM Careers in Rural Tennessee
In Tennessee, the challenges are different. Roughly 95% of the state is rural, with some areas experiencing cycles of poverty that extend back generations. Many rural areas struggle to attract and retain the large employers that bring economic opportunities; employers, for their part, may be reluctant to invest in areas without a ready and educated workforce. That’s why bringing STEM education to students in rural communities is a critical element of community renewal.
The TSIN is directly targeting these communities through the Tennessee Rural STEM Collaborative (TRSC), an initiative that supports schools in developing STEM programming and community partnerships. TSIN is a public-private partnership between Battelle and the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) dedicated to bringing high-quality STEM programming to students across the state. The network supports eight regional STEM Innovation Hubs, which provide professional development and curriculum resources for teachers and foster partnerships between K-12 schools and local businesses, postsecondary institutions, and community organizations. The TSIN also helps schools earn a state designation as STEM schools.
Brandi Stroecker, the Network Director for TSIN, said, “STEM schools are really the lynchpin of our programs; it’s where it all comes together at the teacher and classroom level. The program is open to all schools in the state, but we are really giving priority to teachers from schools who serve underrepresented areas, including rural and economically distressed communities.”
Teachers receive stipends to participate in professional development that builds teacher capacity to utilize STEM strategies in the classroom around STEM curriculum. Participants bring these strategies back to their schools. Project-based learning, a hands-on and collaborative approach to learning, is one of the core elements of the TRSC program.
Cedric Bunch, the Director of Extended Learning and Student Options Academy for Haywood County Schools in West Tennessee, said participating in the Rural Collaborative has been transformative for his district. After signing up for the program in 2017, he said, “I was exposed to so many things I hadn’t heard of, and our students had never had a chance to experience, like the LEGO Robotics program. In rural counties, you tend to assume you have fewer opportunities to develop partnerships and bring these initiatives in for your students. But through the Collaborative, I realized we have more resources to tap into than may at first be apparent. TSIN gives me a network I can connect with to see models of what is working for other districts across the state and get ideas I can bring to my students.”
His district has built partnerships with local entities such as the county utility department to give students opportunities to see how STEM concepts are used in the real world.
Lawrence County School District has gone all-in on STEM school certification, Computer Science, and Career and Technical Education (CTE) preparedness. Annemarie Lampright, the STEM coordinator for the district, said they plan to eventually have all 12 schools across the district earn the STEM school designation from the state. Students and teachers have been especially enthusiastic about the LEGO Robotics program and an aerial drone competition, fielding multiple teams for each event. So many students participated in the LEGO First Robotics competition that they had to hold intramural events to select teams to send on to the official competition. “The robotics department has become almost like the athletic department,” Lampright said. “There is so much excitement, and so many students are participating. By participating in these events, students develop engineering and design thinking skills they can take into all kinds of future careers.”
Lawrence County has seen an influx of new employers in recent years, including Team Lawrenceburg Park, featuring a large FedEx hub, Canadian manufacturer Craig Manufacturing, and the significant expansion of the robotics manufacturer InMotion. At the same time, Lawrenceburg Utility Systems, DRM Robotics, and Loretto Telecom remain influential local employers. Lampright said that these emerging job opportunities are directly linked with the education they are providing their students. Partnerships with local businesses and vocational schools are helping to prepare students to meet the needs of these employers. “Our movement in Lawrence County is to prepare our students for the modern workforce,” Lampright said. “If we provide strong, skilled workers coming out of school, we can attract higher levels of business to our community, which will raise living standards and bring more money and jobs into our county.”
Preparing Students for the Future
Battelle’s support for initiatives such as TSIN and Metro Schools is helping to develop new talent pipelines in the STEM fields. Brandi Stroecker said, “Having Battelle’s support behind a state network [like TSIN] is incredibly valuable. There is so much we can offer from an R&D perspective. We can take that knowledge and apply it to strategies for these school districts, which helps ensure that our STEM programs are preparing students with the types of skills they will need for the future. It’s a well thought out partnership and very intentional in design.”
For Battelle’s part, these STEM education initiatives are an important component of its philanthropic mission and workforce development programs. While only a percentage of students participating in these programs will end up working directly for Battelle, creating a strong STEM pipeline and nurturing highly educated citizens is good for everyone.