STEM in Schools Sure Ain’t What It Used To Be

high school STEM students
By Barry Waldman

My high school years were the 70s, long after humans had achieved the technological leap of landing on the moon, but before computers had advanced to rule the world.

A computer showed up at my high school, the sixth largest in America, and they quickly gathered students around it for a week or two to show us how it worked, punch cards and all. I don’t recall that anyone took it very seriously.

I attended an international university with a computer department. You could major in computer science, whatever that meant.  There were a dozen or so computer stations scattered around campus that I would use at 2 a.m. in order to complete assignments for my computer elective. We learned to write programs in Basic and store them on three-inch floppy discs.

You get the picture. It was a million years ago.

Hardly anyone in the workplace today can function without aptitude in technology. Technology is not just an exploding field, it’s part of every field. The people who once-upon-a-time fastened screws onto bolts on assembly lines today operate the machines that fasten the screws onto bolts.

So when I hear that schools are focusing on STEM in their curricula – science, technology, engineering and math – it sounds smart.

But, wow. I had no idea.

The schools aren’t just teaching STEM. They are becoming STEM. The transformation is astonishing.

Area schools have robotics clubs and compete with each other to build high tech trebuchets to launch projectiles at targets. They employ mechatronics teachers. I’ve been in the workplace for 35 years and I don’t even know exactly what mechatronics is.

Schools like Summerville and Wando offer certificates in biomedical engineering. Wando has a School of Math, Science and Engineering. Not Clemson – Wando High School.

West Ashley High School offers 15 career majors, many of them in math and science. Majors, in high school! They aren’t just for the high achieving students, because everyone has to know how to make machines work. Some of the programs prepare students to jump right into manufacturing jobs, while others achieve college credit. The Class of 2017 at West Ashley had accrued 200 college credits combined by the time it graduated.

I took some AP classes. History. English. Spanish. Estoy bien, gracias.

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce sponsors career academies within the schools that correspond to employment needs in the region – STEM, business, hospitality and health sciences. They connect businesses with schools to provide instructors and mentors.

We had career night at my high school. An editor from the local newspaper told us the way to prepare for a career in journalism was to read a lot.

Goose Creek High School’s Project Lead the Way is a four-year, eight-class certificate program that teaches engineering, Computer Aided Design, robotics, aerospace engineering, civil engineering and architecture. They have 3D printers. The students design and build a bridge prototype. They design a Habitat for Humanity house.

The school also has welding, graphic design and health sciences that can prepare students for jobs or college. My high school had an auto shop.

The sea change in schools is not limited to high schools or to wealthy schools. The education non-profit, Charleston Promise Neighborhood, offers 21st century skill training in the poorest elementary schools. A Charleston City-based series called Engineering for Kids teaches STEM to younger students through hands-on learning.

In short, today’s educational curriculum is a quantum change – maybe three quanta – from what people like me are used to. As West Ashley Principal Lee Runyon says, “we’re still teaching the three R’s, (reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic) but we’re far beyond that. We have to be exemplary in preparing kids for careers.”