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Boys, girls, schools, clubs: New ways to build and sustain interest in learning about sciences and technology

The University of San Diego gets $12 million to spend on scaling up STEM education

In an effort to scale up improvements in the way American schoolchildren learn science, technology, engineering and mathematics, subjects jointly known as STEM education, the University of San Diego­ will expand a national initiative through a $12 million dollar gift, announced Thursday, from the Noyce Foundation.

The initiative, called STEM Next, is meant to target girls and students in impoverished areas to both inspire and maintain their interest in STEM subjects. The plans are to extend support for these subjects beyond schools to include community organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America or the YMCA, as well.

The STEM Next initiative will not fund programs directly, but will partner with organizations to build sustainable models locally and pursue further funding. The idea, according to Ron Ottinger, executive director of the Noyce Foundation, is to tailor curriculums and train teachers and after-school leaders through virtual professional development platforms, such as Click2Science, and to offer them data collection and feedback. Working with private and public funders to train front-line staff is critical to sparking student interest about STEM learning – and to having them return for more – Ottinger said in a phone interview.

“The key to scaling is to think about sustainability, and what are the building blocks of a system to make sure that it really becomes part of the fabric of each of the organizations,” Ottinger said.

The U.S Department of Education forecasts that STEM jobs will increase by as much as 62 percent by 2020, although barriers to the classes that prepare students for these jobs are still quite tall. Right now, just 81 percent of Asian-American high school students and 71 percent of white high school students attend schools where the full range of math and sciences courses – Algebra I & II, geometry, calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics – are offered, according to the U.S Department of Education. And the access to these courses for African-American and Latino students is much worse.

“In this day and age, almost every job is going to require an understanding of computer science,” according to Alice Steinglass, a vice president at Code.org. “If you want to go into marketing, politics, medicine – tech is becoming a part of almost every job in our society.”

According to Thursday’s announcement, STEM Next will focus on reaching girls, African-Americans and Latinos. The percentage of engineers who are women has remained steady at 12 percent for 15 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. African-Americans and Latinos receive only 19 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences, despite making up one-third of the college-age population

The special effort to reach girls and underserved populations pleased other advocates who work to encourage STEM involvement. Ruthe Farmer, Chief Strategist at the National Center for Women and Information Technology, said that more girls are now entering the traditional sciences, but that there is still a great need to steer them into computer science fields.

“When technology and the entire engineered world around us is built by 20 percent of the population, we aren’t benefitting from diverse perspectives,” Farmer said.

Since 2009, the Obama administration has raised more than $1 billion dollars’ worth of support for the Educate to Innovate campaign, which encourages public and private institutions to upgrade and expand STEM education programs. In his final State of the Union address, President Obama said “hands-on computer and math classes” should be available for every student. Richard Culatta’s final remarks as leader of the Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology featured a plea for teaching computer science to women and minorities.

“We’re missing things we might be solving because we don’t have everyone at the design table,” Farmer said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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