Wisconsin School District Makes STEM a Priority

Computer science and other subjects have the potential to prepare students for their future.

by Nick Crow, The Janesville Gazette, Wis. / March 28, 2016 0

(TNS) — JANESVILLE, Wisc. — If you'd asked Parker High School robotics coach and teacher Bob Getka five years ago if any of his incoming freshman knew how to write computer code, he would have said, "No."

That's no longer the case.

"The answer was always no, but just in the last two years, they're coming to us more experienced than in years previous," Getka said.

Getka said 10 years ago he taught computer science part of the day and math part of the day. Next school year, Parker will have enough demand to need three full-time computer science teachers, including Getka, he said.

One of the focuses of the Janesville School District for preparing students for their futures is through classes in science, technology, engineering and math, known collectively as STEM.

"There are tons of offerings in STEM. Robotics and computer science are key examples," Getka said.

STEM isn't a specific course, benchmark or test. STEM is project-based learning that lets students integrate knowledge and skills in science, technology, engineering and math across the curriculum. Janesville uses Project Lead the Way, the nation's top provider of STEM curriculum, as its model.

College and Career Ready

"What we're trying to do with STEM is the four C's: critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity," said Kolleen Onsrud, curriculum coordinator for the district. "Employers say kids come to them, and when it gets to applying what was learned, they can't just rely on textbook knowledge. They are having to look at things in a way they weren't taught how to do."

School district officials say a big part of workforce readiness is providing a curriculum that teaches skills to fill the demands of local businesses.

"Looking in Rock County, all of these data sources are telling us students need to be better prepared in more of these STEM careers." Onsrud said. "National data says we need to be looking more at STEM curriculum."

"For the better part of five years, we've been working towards this — preparing students to be career and college ready," she said. "Part of the idea is being able to identify local state labor market trends. When we do that, that's really about helping our students to be prepared to fill openings in our community."

Onsrud said STEM is different than just learning science or just learning math independent of one another. STEM is more hands-on and integrated, using disciplines in tandem to do things such as computer programming, coding and robotics.

"We've had a fairly strategic approach," Onsrud said. "A lesson in one class is reinforced in another class. The curriculum is coming from a perspective of being more project based. Students are solving questions though a process similar to what a scientist or engineer would use. Activities are engaging using real world applications."

STEM requires students to blend subjects as they would in real-world situations to take multiple ideas and form conclusions, use technology and understand what creates solutions.

"The idea is to give them a skill set to better transfer some of those technical, scientific practices," she said.

School Board Support

In February, the Janesville School Board showed its support for the district's plan to infuse even more STEM into the curriculum through its Pathway to STEM pilot program. The school board approved spending $750,000 on implementing STEM initiatives throughout all grades.

The program is designed to ensure all students in kindergarten through 12th grade get experiences in the four STEM disciplines.

"It was one of the reasons why I wanted to be on the board," said school board member Greg Ardrey. "If we look at the shift of GM and manufacturing, the city is shifting a bit away from that. It's better to have students in the best position to do well in STEM areas. It positions them in other areas, not just in assembly line, mechanical type work. Those positions are more and more driven by understanding of science and technology."

Janesville's STEM action plan lists three goals:

  • Increasing STEM achievement and expanding the number of students who pursue advanced degrees and careers in related fields.
  • Boosting the graduation rate of students in STEM programs and expanding the workforce of those adept in these skills while broadening workforce participation by women and minorities.
  • Increasing STEM literacy for all students and decreasing the need for postsecondary remediation, regardless of whether students study STEM further or pursue related fields.

"We see it as an avenue, as a way for our kids to compete not just statewide or in the U.S. but globally," Getka said. "No matter what field they get into, if you infuse computer science into that, it's so much more marketable down the road."

Ardrey said students learning STEM education at an earlier age creates a "different world" for them so they're prepared by the time they reach high school or college.

"The younger the better," Ardrey said. "These students are born using the computer, playing with smartphones. Toddlers, they're understanding it, so there might as well be an organized method as young as we can."

Student Feelings

Ardrey, who has a daughter who graduated from the district and a son enrolled in the district, said students are eager to participate in STEM curriculum if it, like any other subject, is presented in an interesting manner.

"The generation we're in now was born using a computer," Ardrey said. "With that in mind, you don't have to force them but rather provide opportunities to make it interesting for them."

Ardrey said that before recent advancements in technology, graduates fell into two categories. Some went into jobs such as those at GM and made a fine living, and some went to a four-year school, he said. Now, students see a technical education as a good career path.

"It's a much easier sell," Ardrey said. "We haven't had to sell it. Kids in essence were born using a computer."

"The offerings from a computer engineering design standpoint are moving down a path clearly outside what I would have expected in high school some years ago," he said. "It puts students in the position to be able to feel comfortable going to tech schools already knowing things and being prepared."

Ardrey said his daughter uses skills she learned in STEM programming as well as art skills in her profession as a computer-aided design drafter.

Getka said he is hopeful the district will be able to infuse STEM curriculum into math and science concepts in elementary, middle and high school classrooms.

"The kids started to drive a lot of this," Getka said. "Kids now realize, and schools do, too, if you go to college and just get a generic degree, there's no guarantee you're going to make a good, solid living after college."

©2016 The Janesville Gazette (Janesville, Wis.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.