Future STEM Careers Begin in the Primary Grades

Future Our Children Will Face

Advanced skills for the “Knowledge Economy” will be required for most well-paying jobs, and for navigating one's life. Engineering and health sciences will drive technological development. Accelerating globalization demands a mobile, high-tech workforce – one which is internally highly competitive. By 2020, cross-disciplinary STEM skill sets will require broad training and positive attitudes toward technology. This will obsolete prior criteria for K-12 education. From R&D to Manufacturing to Service Industries, new tools and emphasis on the process of acquiring/understanding knowledge quickly may be more vital than specific knowledge. Collaborative and virtual design will become the new standard.
According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, in order to achieve a measure of success in their future endeavors, students will need to be fluent in the four “C”s - Critical thinking and problem solving, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity and innovation [1]. These themes resonate throughout the scope and sequence of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum.

Attitudes Developed in K-12 are Critical to Building Future High-Tech Workforce

Primary Grades should instill positive attitudes with curricula that include age appropriate project and team based learning. Children should be exposed to futures they will experience and be inspired by the possibilities. Pupils should be challenged, but not overwhelmed, and parents must be kept informed and involved.

Best Practices for Successful Outcomes in a STEM Classroom

 The nationally recognized STEM curriculum known as Project Lead The Way (PLTW) has been adopted by the Red Bank Middle School, with full implementation of the program beginning in September, 2010. Its success to date is due to many factors. Teachers facilitate inquiry and exploration by serving as “guides on the side,” not “sages on the stage.” STEM teachers must realize they don?t have to be the “expert” in the room at all times (which may be a difficult transition for some traditionalists). Additionally, teacher/facilitators often model the work, collaborating on projects with students, which impresses upon young learners that even when adults face the challenges of a given design project, the results may be imperfect.
Design Process and the concept of iterative innovation must become hard-wired in our students. This holistic, systemic approach to problem solving is exemplified in the “Skimmer” project, an updated, low-cost version of the “Pinewood Derby.” In this case, rather than using pine wood for construction, students use manila folders and recycled cereal boxes to craft their vehicles, while gaining an understanding of the Metric and Standard systems of measurement, AutoCAD, mechanics and aerodynamic flow, and the math of dimensioning.
 Rapport with local STEM experts is equally important, as they may serve as guest speakers on occasion, offering career insight, as well as valuable instructional resources. Student success is measured in a STEM classroom in a variety of ways: adherence to project timelines and specifications, assessment matrices (known as rubrics), a “projects completed” percentage, student attitude surveys, anecdotal observations, assessment essays, self/team assessments, and traditional content knowledge tests, to name a few.
Correlations to standardized test results may be inferred as well. 

Student Attitude Survey Results

A recently conducted student survey reveals great enthusiasm for PLTW. Also, students have overwhelmingly indicated an interest in pursuing STEM careers due to their positive experiences in Project Lead the Way. It is evident that students genuinely appreciate the “hard fun” nature of the challenges they face while working on classroom projects.
Project Lead the Way Gateway to Technology (GTT) Units of Study for Grades 4 - 8PLTW is developing end-of-course assessments for the Gateway to Technology (GTT) middle school curriculum and instructor-designed student surveys will be enhanced to address specific aspects of the curriculum at each grade level moving forward.
The Project Lead The Way (PLTW) curriculum spans grades 4-8 and includes three units of study which are divided up among the grade levels. The PLTW scope and sequence is as follows:
  • Energy and the Environment – Grade 4
  • Design& Modeling I – Grade 5
  • Design & Modeling II – Grade 6
  • Automation & Robotics I – Grade 7
  • Automation & Robotics II – Grade 8
  • Students in Grades 4-8 receive 1 marking period (46 days) of STEM instruction per year
I. Energy and the Environment
  • Students investigate the importance of energy in our lives and the impact of using energy on the environment.
  • Students design and model alternative energy sources and participate in energy fairs to demonstrate energy concepts and innovative ideas.
  • Students evaluate ways to reduce energy consumption through energy efficiency and waste management technology.
II. Design & Modeling
  • Students will use solid modeling software (a sophisticated technique for representing solid objects) to effect the design process.
  • Students understand how design influences their lives, using this design process.  
  • Students learn sketching techniques and use descriptive geometry as a component of design, measurement, and computer modeling.
  • Students, in teams, brainstorm, research, develop ideas, create models, evaluate design ideas, and communicate solutions.
Students trace the history, development, and influence of automation and robotics.III. Automation & Robotics
  • Students learn about mechanical systems, energy transfer, machine automation, and computer control systems.
  • Students acquire knowledge and skills through team problem solving, collaboration, and innovation.

Sustaining STEM Interest and Motivation Through the High School Level

Eighth grade students at Red Bank Middle School have the opportunity to continue their STEM education by opting into the Red Bank Regional High School's Project Lead The Way program which is offered as an elective class for students who enroll in the Academy of Information Technology. This academy is available for all students in 9th – 12th Grade. The high school PLTW curriculum includes Biomedical Sciences and High School Engineering.