The science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum many schools in the county have adopted in recent years has proved successful in whetting the appetites of young students for careers in STEM industries, educators said.

Teachers say that when students enroll in courses like robotics, aerospace engineering, and flight and space, they do more than fulfill remarkable course requirements — they improve how this country competes in the global market.

‘Production Line Of The Future’

“The United States is no longer No. 1 in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics industries,” said Robert Edwards, an eighth-grade teacher at Stephen F. Austin Middle School in Galveston. “We need to jump-start the engineering kids of the future.”

Edwards does his part as a STEM instructor by teaching engineering and computer programming skills with his labor-intensive wood shop curriculum.

“We still use textbooks, but now students have ownership in what they’ve done,” he said. “Everyone is so used to succeeding all the time that they don’t know how to learn from their failures.”

La Marque’s Renaissance Academy started a STEM program in 2010. The school has become a catalyst for a districtwide initiative to offer STEM classes to students at every campus.

Educators who don’t expose students to professionals, equipment and environments related to STEM industries are doing students a disservice by leaving them unprepared to compete with their peers after graduation, said Joanie Hudson, assistant superintendent for school improvement for the La Marque school district.

Access To Resources

Partnerships with major STEM industries give students an edge when applying for college or a workforce starving for STEM-trained employees, Hudson said.

“STEM jobs are wide open in local industry,” she said. “We are the production line of the future here with an endless resource like students.”

NASA tapped into those student resources at Clear Creek high schools, district spokeswoman Janice Scott said.

STEM students in engineering design and development courses aced an assignment to design professional-grade hardware to solve a recurring hygiene problem on the International Space Station.

“The shower system astronauts were using in sky lab was inadequate so they simply stopped showering,” Scott said.

NASA asked students to design a shower system that harnessed unwieldy water in a zero gravity environment while improving the overall enjoyment of taking a shower in space, she said.

“Our students designed a shower system using waterproof fabric with a filter system that sucks the water out the bottom,” Scott said. “They also equipped it to provide heat that circulates through the system so it feels like a hot shower even though it’s not.”

The invention will be installed in the space station, she said.

The genius of STEM is inherent in the tendency of digital natives to teach themselves how to use new technology with minimal instruction, said Bobby Markle, principal for grades three through eight at Odyssey Academy.

Digital natives are members of younger generations of students who have never known a world in which they lacked ready access to intuitive technology like iPads or motion-sensor video games.

“Once they have access to that higher level of curriculum, students guide their own learning,” Markle said. “Districts should be providing teachers and students access to those resources.”

Robots With Brains

Eric Fuller, a robotics instructor at Odyssey Academy in Galveston, said his students demonstrate what Markle described on a daily basis.

“We’re more facilitators (than teachers),” he said. “I help direct students to the information they need to find the right answer and let them discover it themselves, rather than forcing knowledge into their brains. They remember it better that way.”

Priscilla Becerrill, who is in Fuller’s advanced robotics class, said she found the open-ended nature of the course exciting.

She said the most challenging aspect was actually working with other classmates to conceptualize the coolest robot they could build using LEGO pieces, micro engines, ultrasonic sensors and other tools.

Becerrill teamed up with the two other girls in the class and built a sumo-wrestling robot to battle opposing robots for floor space on a circular platform. A winning bot would be well built and sensitive enough to its surroundings that it could strategically push its opponent off the platform without the use of remote controls.

Becerrill described the process in laymen’s terms.

“We programmed the robot’s brain to think,” she said. “It’s really interesting and entertaining to see how it works. It’s crazy to think a little robot, a little plastic thingy, can do that.”

Other groups in the class used the same resources to build a pinball machine and a basketball arcade game.

“It gets wild and crazy once everyone figures it out,” Fuller said.

‘Teacher Technology’

One of the more predictable challenges for STEM programs is keeping

teachers ahead of their students and the ceaseless barrage of technological updates, Markle said.

“A lot of our teachers aren’t necessarily digital natives, depending on which generation they come from,” he said. “We put an emphasis on teacher technology and invest a lot of time in their development.”

Teachers at Stephen F. Austin Middle School, the first school on the island to offer STEM programming, are required to attend intensive summer programs to master the skills associated with the courses they teach, counselor Shondra Jackson said.

“Teachers are expected to keep up with technology, but a lot of them have a genuine interest in technology,” she said. “That’s not a coincidence. We look for instructors who are genuinely interested in this stuff.”

Growing Up

The Renaissance Academy in La Marque had an enrollment of about 100 students in 2012. Hudson hopes increased efforts at recruitment will double that enrollment this year.

In the meantime, the La Marque school district has outlined steps to begin a comprehensive STEM curriculum, starting with elementary school students and advancing by grade level.

A majority of Odyssey and Austin STEM students go on to apply for the Ball Prep Texas-STEM Academy at Ball High School, which accepts up to 120 freshmen every year using a lottery system, Principal Marsha Ricks said.

Becerrill, who is interested in pursing a career in medical science, said she plans to apply when she’s old enough.

“It’s cool to find out about the human body,” she said. “They should offer a class here specifically focusing on that.”

Elementary and middle school students enrolled in STEM courses at Odyssey have been so successful the school plans to expand its course options next year when it recruits the first freshman class in 2014, Markle said.

If everything goes according to plan, Odyssey will have a full-fledged high school by 2017, complete with the latest and greatest in STEM programming, he said.

“I can’t describe what students will be making in five years because it’s something that hasn’t been invented yet,” Markle said. “These kids are going to do the next great thing.”

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