STEM approach proves fundamental to 21st century livelihood

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By Melissa Rosequist

Independent Newsmedia

Seven municipal leaders gathered at Scottsdale City Hall for a roundtable discussion on the growing STEM environment within the Valley — leading to a frank discussion on the quality of education as the group looked to the future.

STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math, is a collection of disciplines being embedded into the next generation’s toolbox ranging from classroom skills to workplace aptitude.

Mayors from across the Valley took part in the open discussion, held at Scottsdale City Hall this month, as part of the ninth annual Arizona STEM & Innovation Summit. The conversation was moderated by C+S Communications Co-Founder, Chip Scutari.

The mayors participating were:

  • Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego.
  • Goodyear Mayor Georgia Lord.
  • Surprise Mayor Skip Hall.
  • Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane.
  • Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels.
  • Litchfield Park Mayor Thomas Schoaf .
  • Paradise Valley Mayor Jerry Bien-Willner.

The mayors collectively had a list of bragging rights when it came to STEM innovation within their own communities, ranging from local initiatives, to new businesses setting up shop, to classroom skills being taught.

Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Todd Sanders says STEM careers are in high demand nationwide, but Arizona is seeing an exceptional increase in technology companies and jobs.

In addition to Phoenix’s marketplace seeing an influx in STEM jobs, those with their boots on the ground are seeing changes in the work place and classroom.

Mr. Bien-Willner pointed out he sees a trend of company bosses opting to work from home, rather than in a traditional office; while Ms. Daniels pointed out changes needed to traditional education.

However, one underlying theme bubbled up to the surface when discussing STEM in the classroom: Giving local schools an even playing field to better prepare the next generation for this new tech-heavy world.

Arizona schools are funded based on their Average Daily Membership — the number of students who attend each school. The Arizona School Board Association reports the state has cut $4.56 billion to public schools in the past 10 years.

Some of the largest cuts have been to capital funding, which the state calls “District Additional Assistance,” a category that pays for classroom textbooks and technology, purchases of items from desks and lunch tables to school buses and building repair and maintenance.

The total cut since 2009 is equal to $2 billion, according to the ASBA.

Without those funds, school districts are put in the position of asking their tax payers to fill in the gaps, by passing voter-approved overrides and bonds. In districts that are less likely to pass the ballot initiatives, students pay the consequences, according to Mr. Schoaf.

Fundamentally unfair

The conversation moderator, Mr. Scutari, described Mr. Schoaf as a straight-shooter prior to asking him what changes he has for the local school system.

“I would probably start by having the Congress and United States government absolutely stay out of education entirely,” he said.

“I would somehow try to convince our Legislature that we need a system that eliminates low-funded schools.”

Pointing to the need to have voter-approved overrides to help fund their schools, the Litchfield Park mayor says he’s supported the ballot initiatives for nearly 40 years.

“It helps our schools tremendously, we couldn’t survive and be as good as we are without overrides, but I think it’s a really, really poor way to fund education in this state,” Mr. Schoaf said.

“Because the funding discrepancies from school district to school district are not fair to the kids. We can’t expect to educate our children in STEM subjects if we can’t afford to have a teacher who will go there and teach them.”

Mr. Schoaf says Arizona needs state funding that is fair.

“We cut out a huge number of people who would love to go teach, and are very educated in the STEM disciplines but they won’t go because they can’t raise a family. The whole system is broken,” he said.

“It isn’t fundamentally fair — we’re spending more money for my grandkids to be in elementary school or high school then it is for somebody else in another neighborhood. Because they don’t support overrides, because they don’t understand how important they are, or they simply can’t afford to support overrides it’s not fair to those kids. The kids haven’t done anything wrong, just one kid happens to be in my district and one happens to be in another.”

A population of genius

Ms. Daniels, who is a mother, had an even stronger stance on the education system, which she prefaced as being controversial.

“I think we need to completely dismantle our education system — not just in Arizona, but across the country,” she said.

“Our workforce is changing and the needs of our workforce are changing. No longer will we be able to find a graduate from college who wants to do five years of school, which is essentially what they have to do to become a certified teacher, and then be an expert in 156 different competency areas; and then go work in a single classroom with the luck of the draw when it comes to students, stick with those students for an entire year, and then pass them along to the next grade.”

Ms. Daniels described using “team teachers,” where educators are proficient in a certain subject.

“We have to re-think how we’re going to do this. If we’re going to meet the needs of the youth, if we’re going to meet the needs of the workforce,” she said.

She says while basic competency levels remain important, the strengths of youth should be focused on, describing students’ minds as brilliant.

“We’re moving toward the next 20 years where 10% of ourwork force will be on the autism spectrum. Are we prepared as a community to access the genius that’s within those individuals?” she asked.

“Are we, are managers, our education, are we actually changing the way we teach and are we adapting? Frankly, moving away from those traditional success skills that used to be an important component to getting a job — if that’s solely what we’re focused on — we’re going to miss out on an entire population of genius that we need to be incorporating into our overall economy, for their sake and ours.”

According to the CDC, about 1 in 59 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder according to estimates from CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. In addition, autism spectrum disorder is about four times more common among boys than among girls.

Overall, Ms. Daniels said the education system needs to shift in several areas, and be rebuilt for the future.

Meeting students where they are

Schools throughout Arizona are implementing STEM courses and programs, including specialty campuses and public schools.

In the Scottsdale Unified School District, Saguaro High School offers a Math & Science Academy open to all district students that focuses on the STEM disciplines.

Saguaro reported welcoming 68 freshmen for the 2019-20 school, marking its largest cohort for the STEM-based learning program.

In north Phoenix, private school Gateway Academy sees STEM as a pivotal aspect for its students. Much to Ms. Daniels’ point during the mayor’s roundtable, Gateway Academy serves twice-exceptional students — children who have the characteristics of gifted students with the potential for high achievement and give evidence of one or more disabilities.

These disabilities may include specific learning disabilities, speech and language disorders, emotional/behavioral disorders, physical disabilities, autism spectrum or another impairments such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Gateway Academy science teacher Kacey Morrisey says the school seeks to regularly incorporate technology into each subject.

“From my six years at Gateway, I would say the school views STEM as pivotal. Our student body consists of learners that need the multi-sensory learning tools that come from not only learning facts but using them to answer that age-old question: ‘Why are we doing this?’” Ms. Morrisey explained.

“Using the marriage between science, technology, engineering and math, they start asking questions instead such as ‘can I try this now? What would happen if I did this? How can I make this better?’”

Ms. Morrisey says at her school, they encourage curiosity.

“With so many learning difficulties and differences in not just our school but all across the country, learning how to communicate your thoughts and ideas is so important,” she said. “Not all of them do that through writing though. Some do it through demonstrations, art and full-on projects because it gives them that whole-brain learning experience, which is great because that’s the best way to retain the concept, not just the rote knowledge.”

In today’s busy society, Ms. Morrisey explains she thinks STEM learning will be beneficial to students as they learn problem solving and critical thinking skills.

“With the busy society we live in and the kids whose parents have to work two jobs each with complicated home lives becoming much more common, I think the STEM in the classrooms will alleviate some of that uncertainty on how to handle difficult situations by teaching students how to problem solve and critically think, by showing them it’s a natural process they already do in their video games and trying to find strategies for solving puzzles or watching someone else do it on their Youtube videos,” she said.

“Once you connect concepts in the classroom and give them foundational skills they know they can use for their academics and real life, they start to use it. It’s just part of survival! You keep what is useful and discard what is not. In order to get students to actually want to learn, you have to meet them where they are, and I truly think STEM does that by giving them other options to demonstrate what they’ve learned and what they want to learn that cannot be accomplished through just pencil and paper exams or textbooks.”

The place to do business

As STEM increases to find its place in the classroom, the science, technology, engineering and math sectors are finding their place in the Phoenix workplace.

Mr. Sanders, the CEO of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce says the Phoenix desert offers benefits incentively to start-up technology to launch here, and existing technology to expand within the state.

“With business-friendly tax policies and world-class universities focused on innovation, Arizona uniquely provides businesses the landscape they need to grow, and access to the talent they need to fill STEM careers,” Mr. Sanders said. “Here in the Greater Phoenix area, we have so many organizations that provide support for emerging tech companies — from the Arizona Technology Council, to Galvanize, to #yesPHX, we are committed to this thriving industry in our state.”

Mr. Sanders points to companies such as Motorola, Intel and American Express bringing thousands of high-paying technology jobs to the Valley.

“STEM companies have had a major impact on our economy, and will continue to do so,” he said. “Beyond those large companies, we have a thriving presence of small STEM companies and start-ups. It has been estimated that the tech industry has a direct economic impact of more than $31 billion in our state. Technology companies have revitalized Phoenix’s warehouse district downtown, and have contributed greatly to more people working and living in this area.”

For workers, STEM careers are everywhere, Mr. Sanders says, in both traditional fields and industries they might not be expected.

“For example, we are finding that even the construction industry is more and more reliant on STEM careers, as technology is making it easier for us to build our city,” Mr. Sanders said. “Whether a person is seeking a career in this field at a company like Intel, or in the construction trades, these are high-wage, high-growth jobs that are allowing people to thrive.”

Overall, Mr. Sanders says the Phoenix chamber is committed to talent and job creation by utilizing employer-led workforce collaboratives working to solve issues, strengthen talent pipelines, and promote these careers to help the economy thrive.

STEM

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