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STEM, career technical education a priority at Mesa Public Schools

Posted 6/21/22

Mesa Public Schools is placing its hopes on education in science, technology, engineering, math and career technical education to translate to the city’s economy as more technology companies move into the east valley.

A lot of priority is put on STEM and CTE education at Red Mountain High School in Mesa, Kathy Wooton, Red Mountain High School career technical education instructor, said.

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STEM, career technical education a priority at Mesa Public Schools


Editor’s note: Alyssa Bickle wrote the article as a journalism student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University.

Mesa Public Schools is placing its hopes on education in science, technology, engineering, math and career technical education to translate to the city’s economy as more technology companies move into the east valley.

A lot of priority is put on STEM and CTE education at Red Mountain High School in Mesa, Kathy Wooton, Red Mountain High School career technical education instructor, said.

“Red Mountain [High School] has particularly embraced the STEM concept and CTE classes, so kids that come to Red Mountain do get lots and lots of STEM opportunities; we highly recommend Red Mountain for a STEM education,” Wooton said.

CTE courses are similar to STEM, the main difference is developing a more specific and practical skill set, such as getting really good at carpentry, Shane Bycott, Red Mountain High School STEM Institute instructor and CTE career pathways coordinator, said.

“The difference being that when you are using STEM … now you have to take those skill sets and apply them to solve problems and answer biggest questions, to add to the body of work that is already out there in STEM,” Bycott said.

Mesa Public Schools has a partnership with Honeywell, and the company has offered some of its engineers and different science professionals to partner with students and teachers for help with projects and hands-on experiences, Wooton said.

In the U.S., 70% of GDP and two out of three jobs can be attributed to scientific, engineering and math activities, Lori Collins, city of Mesa deputy economic development director, said.

“As more and more technology-based companies look to expand in Mesa, STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] education will be more important than ever,” Collins said.

JX Nippon, a company with high-tech job opportunities available, has announced a Mesa expansion, and Fujifilm, a company with chemical-related job opportunities, recently completed an expansion in Mesa, Collins said.

“We [the city of Mesa] think that we continue to see high tech companies continue to locate in Mesa, because it really does create a great business environment for them to thrive… STEM has such wide implications as far as skill sets go,” Collins said.

“It’s kind of just beginning, we are looking forward to making it grow in the next couple years,” Wooton said.

Experience seems to be becoming just as valuable and marketable as a college degree, which is what CTE programs directly provide to students, Mesa High School CTE Teacher Tamara Tapia said.

“In CTE programs, the students getting industry certifications like food handlers license in culinary, Microsoft certifications in computer applications and … certification in auto class will enable the kids to get jobs not only during college, but full time, higher-paying jobs after college,” Tapia said.

After college includes junior or community college certification programs like plumbing and HVAC that are in just as much demand as fields requiring a STEM college degree, Tapia said.

At Mesa High School, Tapia says it offers the right classes, curriculum, and certification options for students to gain valuable skills in their fields, but its internship program does need work.

“We need better relationships with the community to get these kids into part-time jobs in their field during high school that can translate into full time, or even scholarship options to get college level certification in the field, paid for by the business,” Tapia said.

Earning college credits while still in high school or gaining skills for a future career is becoming more and more vital for students in high school, Mesa Public Schools teachers said.

At Red Mountain, Project Lead the Way Biomedical Sciences is an elective that builds hands-on experience and involves research and job shadowing, Jennifer Klein, Red Mountain High School biomed instructor, said.

Many students who participate in the program go on to medical school or even more medically specialized training, Klein said.

“I think our program gives them [students] great opportunities … What we have as a program fits the needs of those students [students interested in the medical field] very well,” Klein said.

The biomed program has been at Red Mountain for about 10 to 12 years, Klein said.

“I think the continued investment in education is very important, that’s really the only way we can continue to make it accessible and help students identify career paths so that they can practice at the forefront of advanced industries,” Collins said.

CTE classes at Red Mountain are project- or work-based, and the projects do take money. Without adequate funding, students would not be able to get the hands-on experience they need, Wooton said.

Classes include computer programming or coding, basic engineering, and other courses that teach kids how to think logically and how to be able to write code and use code in everyday life, Wooton said.

The CTE program has access to federal funds like the Carl Perkins grant, and a few STEM classes are also supported by CTE funding, Wooton said.

“We like to buy equipment and pieces and parts to help build things. For things like cyber security we are able to buy old laptops and create our own network; we create robots, we use laptops and iPad,” Wooton said.

The Carl Perkins grant is the main source of federal funding to states for the improvement of secondary and postsecondary career and technical education programs, according to Perkins Collaborative Resource Network.

“It’s kind of just beginning; we are looking forward to making it [CTE programs] grow in the next couple years… We feel that kids are going to be really well prepared for college, and career ready in the future,” Wooton said.

Each year, a CTE specialist sends out an email with a spreadsheet and asks CTE instructors about their capital needs through their courses, Klein said.

“We fill out the form to what we, the teachers, feel we need. But we don’t get everything on the list, so you overshoot it on purpose because you know you’re not going to get it all,” Klein said.

Klein said she has never been unable to get something she has really needed to teach her students.

Mesa Public Schools does a good job of exposing students to CTE opportunities, as well as STEM opportunities, so students don’t feel like they are being pushed to go to college after high school, Klein said.

Over the past 10 years, education has been improving at applying content to real life scenarios, so students are more prepared for what is out there after high school, Klein said.

But even though schools are seeming to move away from just teaching students how to write an essay or find the answer to a math equation, there is still a disconnect between when a student graduates high school and what happens next, Klein said.

“There’s so many standards that the state requires to teach, that it is difficult to weave those in to teaching real life skills,” Klein said.

There is a lot of pressure on teachers to hit the list of standards to cover well enough for students to pass the required standardized tests, Klein said.

For students interested in the engineering aspect of STEM, the best way to be prepared for college engineering courses is to take honors and AP classes, Will Cotten, ASU engineering student and former Mesa Public Schools student, said.

AP classes are college-level courses that are optional for high school students to take, according to the College Board.

“If you stayed in the regular courses at Mountain View [High School], it would be very difficult for you entering college… I know people that are now in college that didn’t really take the AP and honors track … Those people are really struggling now in college,” Cotten said.

AP and honors courses teach a different mentality that translates very well into engineering, such as how to manage a ton of work or how to not panic on a test, Cotten said.

STEM programs at Red Mountain are even going as far to bring more money to the school overall, Bycott said.

About a decade ago, there was a movement to have schools with specializations, or magnet schools as some teachers call them, Bycott said.

“This is when a STEM academy first popped up [at Red Mountain High School], and then the STEM academy morphed over time into what is now called STEM Institute at Red Mountain,” Bycott said.

It became a trend in education to facilitate good quality schooling though competitiveness, what the community wants and how public schools could attract students to their campus, Bycott said.

“Being as close as we are to Boeing, Honeywell, to a lot of companies that are STEM-based, it became kind of a natural progression to go there,” Bycott said.

Students have the option to apply across schools’ boundaries, meaning for the most part, students can go to high school wherever they want to, Bycott said.

Many of the students that are coming to Red Mountain come from charter schools, Bycott said.

“The STEM Institute runs around 380 to 450 kids; of that, approximately 25% to 30% are charter students,” Bycott said.

It becomes beneficial to Mesa Public Schools as students from school boundaries that are not located in Mesa decide to make the move to Red Mountain or another Mesa Public Schools high school, Bycott said.

The state pays the school district a certain number of dollars per student. The school would not have received that economic boost from the state level had a student from another district not decided to attend a Mesa school, Bycott said.

“As this continues to grow, you are seeing more and more students trend towards those opportunities. At first it started at the high school, but now more and more elementary schools in the Red Mountain feeder pattern are calling themselves STEM Institute schools,” Bycott said.

A feeder pattern is an elementary or junior high school that is in the same boundary as a high school, Bycott said.

Still, the debate continues over whether a STEM or CTE based education is more valuable for students than a humanities or liberal arts-based education.

“I think students that stick with a liberal arts path, especially English, will be limited to teaching positions, where someone in STEM has infinite possibilities in their job search and if they have some type of intern experience, will be marketable in a lot more high-paying, in-demand jobs,” Tapia said.

Because we are such a technologically based society, it seems that STEM careers are the ones making the money, Erin Reed, Red Mountain High School social studies teacher, said.

“I think we still value the liberal arts, but I think there has been a shift with putting greater emphasis on the STEM programs and classes,” Reed said.

But critical thinking looks different in both fields, and the state of Arizona still requires testing that shows proficiency in reading and writing skills as well, Reed said.

It is still very important for students to be able to articulate other people’s points of view and historical points of view, no matter the field they are in, Bycott said.

“Humanities and liberal arts are so valuable to STEM; if you can’t communicate your ideas as an engineer, or you can’t understand the history behind the use of technology, there is so much needed in the liberal arts and humanities that a STEM student should never neglect that,” Bycott said.

But all students should not be pushed to solely follow a STEM or CTE path. Students who want to pursue the liberal arts or non-STEM related careers should follow their dreams and the funding should follow all students’ dreams, Reed said.

No student should never be talked out of a liberal arts education for the reason that they won’t make any money in their career, Wooton said.

“We get caught up in the world of now… I think that it is also important for the world to understand that reading a great book and understanding our history, understanding the perspectives of history and the world, if we neglect to do that, then it is going to be tough,” Bycott said.