Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) could soon significantly expand its science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programming – a move designed to prepare more students for careers in some of the highest-paying and fastest-growing industries in the country.
Traverse City Central High School Assistant Principal Heidi Skodack will outline a proposal to TCAPS board members tonight (Monday) at their 6pm meeting to expand STEM curriculum across every grade – from kindergarten to twelfth – over the next decade. “There are pockets of excellence in STEM right now, but there are areas we need to expand opportunities to students,” Skodack says. “Different schools are offering different exposure to STEM. How do we create vertical alignment so that if I’m a student, no matter where I go to school, I can have those experiences?”
Skodack says student interest already runs high in TCAPS’ existing slate of STEM classes and extracurricular activities, which are predominantly geared toward middle and high school students. Participation in a four-year track called SCI-MA-TECH – which graduates high school students with a heavy concentration of science, math and technology credits – is granted through a highly competitive application process. The district’s robotics teams have also grown in popularity: In 2015, TC Central High School’s team won the state robotics championship and competed in the world championship in St. Louis. Skodack says TCAPS’ decision to introduce a new Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science class to both high schools next fall has also generated “high enrollment interest and a great response from students.”
Among lower grades, TCAPS has added 3D printers and launched “Competition Build Lab Days” at both of its middle schools, expanded robotics programming to both middle and elementary schools, and introduced a pilot engineering curriculum called “Engineering is Elementary” in third-grade classrooms at Eastern Elementary and Central Grade School.
In her presentation tonight, Skodack will provide an overview of a recommended phased approach to gradually increase STEM classes and activities in every grade over a multi-year timeline. The plan calls for eventually offering weekly STEM opportunities and projects with industry professionals for elementary students, as well as introducing coding classes and fully integrating STEM into math and science curriculums for middle school students. At the high school level, plans call for offering a “rigorous” STEM curriculum including AP/college credit courses, program certifications, mentorships with industry professional and the eventual creation of a new district STEM lab.
The 10-year goal, says Skodack, is for TCAPS to become a “nationally recognized leader in STEM education,” offering a comprehensive STEM curriculum, highly skilled STEM educators, and “clear career pathways developed for K-12 students.”
Waiting for students at the end of those pathways are a skyrocketing number of jobs in some of the country’s highest-paying fields. Skodack points to state and national data that shows growing demand – and wages –in nearly every category of STEM occupations, including software development, computer programming, financial management, information analysis, IT administration, and civil, mechanical and biomedical engineering. “One statistic that was very telling that drove this (proposal) is that wages in Michigan for STEM versus non-STEM jobs are almost double,” says Skodack, pointing to median earnings in Michigan of $34.48/hour for STEM jobs compared to $17.99/hour for all other jobs.
STEM jobs are expected to grow by 11.8 percent through 2020 in Michigan, compared to 8.5 percent for all occupations, according to state data. In the Metro Detroit area, a full 30 percent of job listings are in STEM-intensive or research-and-development fields. Perhaps most crucially, approximately 50 percent of STEM jobs don’t require a four-year degree – putting secondary students with access to training and education at an early advantage entering the marketplace.
Expanding STEM classes at TCAPS could “catapult students into a great set of skillsets, so if they choose to go into STEM, they’re going to have a leg up on everyone else either in college or the workforce,” says Skodack. She hopes by expanding the program within all grade levels, TCAPS will also be able to attract students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM.
“One of the biggest areas of concern I have…is that fifth grade is when they say girls decide they’re not as interested in math and science,” says Skodak. “You see a lot of STEM in high school, but if we’re not getting them at an elementary level, we’re losing them before they even get (to high school). We know we need to be targeting students at a younger level to help drive the decision to stay in those high-level math and science classes…it’s a critical piece for me to make sure we have representation from minority and female students in STEM.”
Even for students who never go on to work in STEM-related fields, Skodak believes the curriculum is valuable. “Students are learning teamwork, they’re learning problem-solving, they’re learning to work in groups and that failure is OK – if you make a mistake, go back and try again,” she says. “Not every kid is going to be a STEM kid, but those skills are transferable to any career they’re going into."