Interest in STEM courses is on the rise locally
Published: Friday, December 21, 2012 at 6:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 21, 2012 at 6:54 p.m.
In recent months, Gov. Rick Scott has called for more college students to study the so-called STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — as pathways toward rewarding careers.
The drive is extending deeper, into the K-12 grades, as Alachua County school administrators are promoting more STEM-related material in the classroom.
One way is through the use of 21 magnet programs and career academies spread among four elementary schools, three middle schools and five high schools. Some focus on gifted students while others put more focus on STEM-related instruction.
Santa Fe High School's Institute of Biotechnology is the only career academy in the county designated as a STEM program by the Department of Education, said Nancy Iafrate, teacher specialist with the school district's Career and Technical Education Department.
The program, which has 78 students currently enrolled, teaches students how humans use living organisms to create products.
Dr. Beth LeClear, principal at Santa Fe High, said the school's science classes are popular among students.
“We have some very, very good science teachers, so our students like science,” she said.
Iafrate added that the district has two other programs that are labeled as STEM: agritechnology at Newberry High School and Santa Fe High as well as a drafting program at Buchholz High School, which currently has 163 students.
STEM instruction is not limited to the high school level, as elementary schools in Alachua County have begun introducing young students to basic science and engineering concepts.
Stephen Foster Elementary and Joseph Williams Elementary are in their first year of emphasizing STEM activities to students.
Carly Sewell, a STEM lab instructor at Foster, said she teaches 125 magnet students in her labs, leading engineering projects as well as problem-solving activities.
Problem solving, she said, is a skill students should acquire early.
“The lab prepares (students) with skills that they can take in any jobs they choose,” she said. “It's crazy how much they've grown in working as a team from the beginning of the year.”
Elementary students not enrolled in magnet programs are still getting exposure to STEM instruction through their core curriculum, said Jessica Mead, elementary science specialist for the district.
“Every elementary school student is being exposed to some degree of STEM through their math and science curriculum as well as the technology in the classroom,” she said.
High school students not in magnet programs are given a chance to enroll in Advanced Placement courses, which offer relevant STEM courses like biology, chemistry and calculus.
Gainesville High, Buchholz High and Eastside High have the highest number of AP test-takers in the county as of this year, according to the Florida Department of Education.
The district is also offering more AP science and math courses to smaller high schools in Alachua County, said Karen Clarke, director of secondary curriculum for the district.
“We want to make sure the opportunities are there for kids to take these courses,” she said. “They may be smaller in enrollment, but we certainly have the opportunities for them there.”
This year, Newberry High opened a new AP biology course to students, while Hawthorne Middle/High School started offering an AP environmental science course, Clarke said
For the 2013-14 school year, Newberry, Hawthorne and Santa Fe high schools will offer students an AP course in chemistry.
Some school officials say student interest in the opportunities has been low so far.
At Hawthorne Middle/High, guidance counselor Jill Geltner said enrollment numbers in upper-level science and math courses are “slim.”
“More of our kids are focused on trying to get through high school and go to college … with the end goal of getting a job and being more successful because they have an education,” she said.
Bill McElroy, assistant principal of curriculum at Gainesville High, said the state's emphasis on STEM is just beginning to be felt at his school.
“I can't say this has an effect because it's all too new,” he said.
Even with the potential of finding a STEM job, McElroy encourages students to find a career they're passionate about, whether it be on a canvas or under a microscope.
“We do really want kids to follow their hearts,” he said.
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