Bringing STEM to Rural Scholars in Florida

Florida student Phidell and fellow rural Florida high school students work on a STEM project.

Phidell (far left) and fellow rural Florida high school students work on a STEM project.
Photo credit: FloridaLearns STEM Scholars

Phidell Lewis, a 17-year-old senior at a 450-student high school in a thinly populated area of the Florida Panhandle, had two big adventures this past summer.

He spent four days alongside some of the nation’s top scientists as part of a group analyzing nanomaterials, tiny particles with special characteristics. He also attended a forum of engineers representing various industries, where he learned that mechanical engineers have skills that can be useful in the field of animation, which Phidell has been considering as a career.

Florida students working on STEM activities in the Summer Challenge

Photo Credit: FloridaLearns STEM Scholars

Both opportunities came about because Phidell is one of hundreds of students from rural communities in Florida who are STEM Scholars—part of a new State initiative to expose students to opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) through its Race to the Top grant.

STEM education is critical in preparing the State’s labor force to be competitive in the increasingly high-tech global economy. Many new and existing jobs require expertise in STEM fields, as well as post-secondary credentials. In Florida, estimates indicate that nearly 9 out of 10 new jobs that become available over the next decade will be in STEM fields according to a 2010 report issued by the Council of 100, a group of Florida business leaders who advise the governor, called Closing the Talent Gap.

“The STEM program allows our students to make better sense of what they’re learning on a day-to-day basis, and it helps them become better-prepared employees for our local industries,” said Ralph Yoder, superintendent of Calhoun County, a three-school district in northwestern Florida.

Florida students outside doing STEM activities

Photo Credit: FloridaLearns STEM Scholars

In other efforts to boost the skills of Florida’s labor force, the State is investing in training college graduates in STEM fields to become teachers, and encourages students majoring in those fields to share that knowledge by becoming an educator. The State has set a goal of increasing high school enrollment in STEM-related career academies and advanced STEM courses by 3 percentage points per year.

“Funds from Florida’s Race to the Top award have expedited efforts already underway to better prepare students for college and careers,” said Brenda Crouch, Program Manager for the FloridaLearns STEM Scholars Program. “It is a win for Florida’s economic future.

The need for an increased emphasis on STEM is particularly acute in rural areas, where many schools have too few students to make it feasible to hire fulltime teachers in these fields. FloridaLearns STEM Scholars Program serves gifted high school students who live in one of three rural areas of the State. Students chosen to participate are paired with mentors and receive intensive hands-on experiences with STEM professionals, rigorous courses during the school year, leadership training and opportunities to collaborate with other advanced students.

Florida students next to water working on STEM activities

Photo Credit: FloridaLearns STEM Scholars

Pam Stewart, Florida’s Commissioner of Education, said that in the past year the State had seen a 12 percent increase in enrollment in accelerated STEM courses and STEM career academies. Enrollments are up 49 percent since 2009. In some rural counties, students received industry certifications for the first time in 2013. “The commitment of Florida districts to a rigorous course of study that can lead to high-skill, high-wage careers is commendable and inspiring,” Stewart said.

More than 1,000 high school students have participated in the STEM Scholars program since 2012. An additional 350 to 400 freshmen and sophomores will join this year. Roderick Robinson, who mentors students in the program in Franklin County, said watching his students’ interest in STEM grow has been a “phenomenal experience.” Prior to the STEM program, many of his students were unfamiliar with STEM careers. After participating in the program, however, Robinson estimates that 95 percent of his students are now interested in STEM majors.

One component of the STEM Scholars program is a four-day Summer Challenge that gives students opportunities to work with peers to solve problems in a variety of technical fields under the guidance of professional scientists and engineers. This past summer students worked on problems involving ecology, physics, inorganic chemistry, photonics, marine habitats, underwater robotics, alternative energy sources and nanotechnology.

A Florida student working on a STEM project

Photo Credit: FloridaLearns STEM Scholars

The session on nanotechnology took place at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, 27 miles west of Monticello, where Phidell goes to school. Phidell and other students learned how nanomaterials are created, interviewed the lab’s scientists and learned how to use an atomic force microscope. The students used instruments to determine a material’s characteristics, and to identify the material best suited for a specific task.

Phidell said he enjoyed the science and learned about careers he wouldn’t normally have considered. He also said he recognized the value in learning to collaborate with others. “I was never good at that before, but now I can work with all kinds of people from different backgrounds and environments,” Phidell said. “I can talk with anyone.”

Willie Saffo, the mentor paired with Phidell by the Scholars program, said he’s seen big changes in Phidell since he started the program. “Phidell has become much more outgoing, and I’ve seen a lot more participation [from him] than in the past,” said Saffo, who has known Phidell since he was in 7th grade. “This program has been a good opportunity to bring that out of him.”

Florida student Jordan studying marine biology.

Jordan studying marine biology. Photo Credit: FloridaLearns STEM Scholars

Jordan Sparks, a 12th-grader is another STEM Scholar at the 350-student Freeport High School, east of Pensacola on the Gulf of Mexico. He was one of nine students from Walton County who participated in a project at the nearby Choctawhatchee Bay to monitor water quality, learn about sea grass and restore oyster reefs.

“My favorite part was looking at how the little things we do can impact an entire ecosystem,” said Jordan, who is now considering a career in marine biology. “It felt good to fix something that other people had broken. It’s really opened my eyes to the world of science.”

Jordan’s mentor, Linda Young, said the program has provided gifted and talented students in the area with hands-on learning opportunities that they would not have had otherwise. “It’s hard to find funding for the extra services,” she said. “Every year I give my students information about summer academic programs, but the price tag prevents them from attending.” The STEM Scholars program helps address that problem.

A group of Florida students working on STEM activities together.

Photo Credit: FloridaLearns STEM Scholars

Young also emphasized the value of the opportunity for students to work with others on demanding projects. “Not only does it improve STEM skills, but it also gets students outside of their comfort zone and working with other students as part of a team,” she said. Speaking about Jordan in particular, Young said, “It’s really been amazing to see him come out of his shell.”





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