Interactive learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is taking hold at all educational levels. For example, urban citizen science programs allow students of all ages to collect data in their local neighborhoods in order to contribute to real-world scientific findings, making science a hands-on experience. Meanwhile, the program Skype a Scientist gives K-12 students the opportunity to ask questions of scientists who work in many different STEM disciplines.
These types of interactive learning opportunities help to make STEM education and careers more appealing to the next generation of learners. One community college in North Carolina is doing so by providing interactive STEM learning programs for local middle school students. Read on to learn more about this innovative initiative.
Extreme STEM Tour
The Education Matters Extreme STEM Tour program is a partnership between Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) in Hickory, North Carolina, and three school districts in the surrounding area. The Catawba County Schools (CCS) district is home to five middle schools, while the Hickory Public Schools (HPS) district has two middle schools and the Newton-Conover City Schools (NCCS) district has one. This tally makes for a total of eight middle schools involved in the Extreme STEM Tour program.
The Extreme STEM Tour brings eighth graders from these schools to a variety of STEM-related businesses in Catawba County. Students also visit the STEM facilities at both CVCC and the North Carolina Center for Engineering Technologies (NCCET), which is a partnership between local community colleges and nearby universities to provide the final two years of baccalaureate education in technical fields.
Each middle school is offered the tour on a different day in the fall and spring semesters. Groups of students and their chaperones are bussed to hour-long tours at no fewer than two local STEM-related businesses. Students also visit either CVCC or NCCET to learn about the STEM educational opportunities and facilities available on their campuses. After the tours, the students meet back at school to share their experiences with one another.
Each group of students educates the others about their tours and what they learned at each location. The hope is that by introducing students to local options to pursue STEM education and careers, they will be inspired by the realization that this pathway to an area with growing career opportunities is available to them close to home.
The Extreme STEM Tour was started with a grant to CCS from the Golden LEAF Foundation. This foundation was established with a settlement from cigarette manufacturers in 1998 to increase economic opportunities in areas that were formerly tobacco-industry dependent as well as in other rural or economically challenged areas. One program offered by the Golden Leaf Foundation was a STEM initiative, which CCS applied for and won. The outcome goals for this initiative included ensuring that students would be prepared for college-level STEM educational opportunities or for STEM careers directly out of high school. Another requirement was to develop collaborations between education providers and industry. Grants funded by this initiative were awarded to 16 different applicants for a total of $5.8 million between them.
Because CVCC already offered a local program called Education Matters, which was designed to teach local high school students about the educational and training paths required to land jobs in a variety of industries, CCS decided to partner with Education Matters to implement the Extreme STEM Tour. Building on the industry, government, and educational connections already in place, Extreme STEM Tour was launched to promote STEM education and careers to local middle school students through interactive, in-person opportunities.
The Extreme STEM Tour program has grown in the six years since its inception. After hearing about the tours put in place for CCS students, two other local school districts have decided to participate as well. To date, more than 10,000 eighth graders have gone on Extreme STEM Tours. Similar tours for K-12 teachers and administrators were launched in 2014. Additionally, training is now in place for other counties in the state to replicate the program.
Fifty-five businesses in the area participate in the Extreme STEM Tour program. Some of these businesses are local, while others have a national or even international presence. Industries that take part in the program include furniture manufacturing, paper products, food production, and health care, just to name a few. Additionally, several local municipal wastewater treatment plants provide tours, as does a local energy provider. With such a diversity of industries represented, the hope is that many middle schoolers will find a future career path in store for them.