Priming the Pipeline for STEM in the South: A Look Across the Region

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Over the next ten years, the number of jobs in science, technology, engineering and math fields, what’s known as STEM, are expected to outpace other industries by about five to ten percent. That’s according to the group Change the Equation, an organization that pushes for greater STEM education in schools. Yet, throughout the South, particularly in rural and high poverty communities, administrators have trouble attracting educators qualified to teach STEM. Paul Boger from Mississippi Public Broadcasting kicks off our Southern Education Desk series, Priming the Pipeline for STEM in the South.

Seventeen-year-old senior Kaejha Dee and five of her classmates are presenting an idea for a video game in their animation and simulation class at Hinds County Career and Technical Center in Raymond, Mississippi.

“A morpho peleides butterfly that’s going to travel is going to travel around the forest. . .” says Dee.

Her classmate, Jesse Qualls, also 17, says he always wanted to be a video game designer.

“It all started when I started playing video games with my dad,” Qualls says. “I started loving video games whenever we had the Nintendo 64 and thinking about, ‘I can create this out of just having programs for the computer.’ It had me shocked and I wanted to create it.”

Qualls and Dee are among 30 students from the Hinds County School District enrolled in a program that teaches students about game design. The students learn everything from 3-D modeling to computer programming. Qualls says he wants to create something that will make people happy.

“I want to create something that any type of person, young, old, hipster, any people like that, they actually smile and be happy with what they are playing,” says Qualls.

Across the hall from the classroom sits the district’s new engineering and robotics lab. The instructor, Lauren Hescheles, points out the new technologies students are being exposed to.

“We have our CNC (computer numerical control) machine that the students use to create 2 and 3-D models, and we also just got some drones,” Heschles says. “At some point, I plan on actually creating drones with our 3-D printers.”

Most of the programs at the technical center are relatively new. However, there’s a problem. Center director Patricia Ashmore says they’re having difficulty finding qualified instructors.

“One of the applicants, when he came to be interviewed, he asked for permission to be off and he told them he was going for an interview and they offered him more money to stay,” Ashmore says. “He decided not to take the job.”

Over the next ten years, careers in STEM-related fields are expected to grow by about 15 percent across the South. Most of those jobs will be in the form of computer science, engineering and advanced manufacturing.

“Some jobs will, of course, lose importance as the economy shifts and changes. Other jobs gain in importance,” says Claus von Zastrow, director of research at Change the Equation, a coalition of industry leaders committed to expanding STEM education in schools.

“Those jobs that gain in importance are generally jobs that are held by people who can not only work basic technologies but rather create more sophisticated technologies or work with technology in really sophisticated ways.”

However, von Zastrow says students are not being prepared for the careers of tomorrow because there are not enough teachers.

“If you look at eighth graders in Mississippi, only 24 percent have a teacher with an undergraduate major in math. That’s less than one in four.”

Southern states are addressing the shortage of STEM educators in different ways. In Alabama, some universities are creating programs that would allow college students to earn a degree in STEM as well as giving them teaching certifications. In Louisiana, educators are being encouraged to collaborate and seek professional development that would strengthen STEM education across the state. In Mississippi, the state has offered loan forgiveness programs for college students willing to teach in critical needs areas.

But for some districts, bringing in STEM professionals is still a pipe dream. Holmes County, just an hour north of Hinds, is one of the poorest areas of the state and the district is nearly 100 percent African American. Superintendent Angel Meeks says there are more pressing matters to contend with.

“We have to get to a point where our students are reading on grade level,” Meeks says. “So STEM is something that we have been looking at, we’re exploring. In terms of implementing, it has strictly been at our high school and to some extent our career and tech center.”

But von Zastrow says there is one thing states shouldn’t do

“For one thing, they shouldn’t do nothing. Nothing is not a good solution when you’ve got these kinds of challenges, and the challenges are great.”

Mississippi education leaders say they want to continue increasing the number of teachers in STEM, but like much of the South, it continues to be a daunting task.

This report is supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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