Phidell Lewis, a senior at a high school in a thinly populated area of the Florida Panhandle, had two big adventures this past summer.
He spent four days with top scientists as part of a group analyzing nanomaterials, and he attended a forum of engineers representing various industries, where he learned about STEM career paths. Both opportunities came about because Phidell is one of hundreds of students from rural communities in Florida who are STEM Scholars—part of a new State initiative to expose students to opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) through its Race to the Top grant.
“The STEM program allows our students to make better sense of what they’re learning on a day-to-day basis, and it helps them become better-prepared employees for our local industries,” said Ralph Yoder, superintendent of Calhoun County.
In other efforts to boost the skills of Florida’s labor force, the State is investing in training college graduates in STEM fields to become teachers, and encourages them to share that knowledge by becoming an educator.
“Funds from Florida’s Race to the Top award have expedited efforts already underway to better prepare students for college and careers,” said Brenda Crouch, Program Manager for the FloridaLearns STEM Scholars Program.” It is a win for Florida’s economic future.
Students chosen to participate in the program are paired with mentors and receive intensive hands-on experiences with STEM professionals, rigorous courses during the school year, and opportunities to collaborate with other advanced students. Pam Stewart, Florida’s Commissioner of Education, said that the State had seen a 49 percent enrollment increase in accelerated STEM courses and STEM career academies since 2009. In some rural counties, students received industry certifications for the first time in 2013. More than 1,000 high school students have participated in the STEM Scholars program since 2012. Roderick Robinson, who mentors students in the program in Franklin County, said watching his students’ interest in STEM grow has been a “phenomenal experience.” Prior to the STEM program, many of his students were unfamiliar with STEM careers. After participating in the program, however, Robinson estimates that 95 percent of his students are now interested in STEM majors.
One component of the STEM Scholars program is a four-day Summer Challenge that gives students opportunities to work with peers to solve problems in a variety of technical fields under the guidance of professional scientists and engineers. This past summer students worked on problems involving ecology, physics, inorganic chemistry, photonics, marine habitats, underwater robotics and alternative energy sources.
Jordan Sparks, a 12th-grader is a STEM Scholar from Freeport High School, east of Pensacola on the Gulf of Mexico. He was one of nine students from Walton County who participated in a summer project at the nearby Choctawhatchee Bay to monitor water quality, learn about sea grass and restore oyster reefs.
“My favorite part was looking at how the little things we do can impact an entire ecosystem,” said Jordan, who is now considering a career in marine biology. “It felt good to fix something that other people had broken. It’s really opened my eyes to the world of science.”
Jordan’s mentor, Linda Young, said the program has provided students in the area with hands-on learning opportunities that they would not have had otherwise. She emphasized the value of the opportunity for students to work with others on demanding projects. “Not only does it improve STEM skills, but it also gets students outside of their comfort zone and working with other students as part of a team.”
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