Basmah Sawalhi – a rising high-school senior, aspiring architect and self-professed math geek – says problem-solving sparks her creativity.
“When you’re faced with a problem, you have certain restrictions and have to be able to work alone and with a group to figure out how to bypass those restrictions,” said Basmah, a student at Lloyd V. Berkner High School in Richardson, Texas. “You work with what you have to find a realistic goal for the problem.”
Basmah and other students at the school face a problem. While the Dallas-Fort Worth region ranks among the top three U.S. metro areas for business and employment growth1 and is attracting talent from around the world, a future that includes a middle- or high-skill career can seem beyond reach for some North Texas students. Fifty-nine percent of the students in Berkner’s attendance zone are economically disadvantaged.
That investment funds STEM for All – a partnership between Educate Texas and the Richardson Independent School District (RISD) – that will provide more than 10,000 students in pre-kindergarten through high school with opportunities to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects as part of their day-to-day school experience. The program will help prepare participating students in Berkner’s attendance zone for STEM jobs in North Texas and beyond.
“For the students who participate in the program, what we hope to see happen is that they choose a career in STEM, whether that be a mid-level job or an engineering job,” said Henry Hall, Berkner’s principal. “We want to provide them with the training they need to go successfully into a trade or into a college and get their advanced degree and do wonderful things to change society.”
Collaborating to change culture
Educators in the Richardson school district are passionate about finding solutions that help students succeed.
“When our kids get into elementary school, we want to provide them with a welcoming environment, with the eyes of the students as our lens all the way through their senior year of high school,” said Jeannie Stone, the district’s superintendent. “We want our teachers to inspire students to explore what interests them.”
Omar Pastrana, an engineering and robotics teacher at Berkner, wants to provide students with real-life examples. “When it comes to teaching students to solve problems through technology, such as robotics, it’s important to allow them to get their hands dirty and learn through experience,” he said.
Henry wants to ensure consistency from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. “We’ll work directly with the elementary and junior high schools to get them aligned with the same model and design process that we’ll be using at Berkner High School,” he said.
STEM for All will support these goals. The three-year program, scheduled to launch this summer, will use methods that were developed over the past six years in the Lancaster school district south of Dallas, with support from the TI Foundation and program management by Educate Texas. The Lancaster initiative includes professional development for teachers, dedicated STEM coaches, greater student engagement through project-based learning, and a rigorous curriculum that centers on college- and career-readiness with more opportunity for accelerated learning options.
This is where the expertise of Educate Texas comes into play as technical assistance provider. “When we began to work with the TI Foundation and Lancaster ISD in 2012 to create a STEM district, we expected the successes and outcomes of LISD to serve as a rigorous STEM learning and teaching model that could be scaled to other Texas school districts,” said George Tang, managing director of Educate Texas. “We’re thrilled that the original expectation is now being realized with the Richardson ISD.”
The results in Lancaster are promising. Students there, 81 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged, now outperform other Texas students in math and science. The goal of the TI Foundation grant to the Richardson district is to introduce and build upon the methods that have succeeded in Lancaster.
“The Richardson school district is committed to changing the culture within the Berkner feeder pattern through STEM-infused curriculum that ensures academic rigor, student engagement and relevancy across the entire pre-K to twelfth-grade curriculum,” Jeannie said. “STEM is not something we do – it’s who we are. That’s why RISD strives to inspire our students from their very first day of school to explore and cultivate their interests and pursue career pathways through a STEM culture.”
For students who live in Berkner’s feeder pattern – which is the group of elementary and junior-high schools that feed into the high school – programs such as this are important for learning skills that will help them participate in the region’s economic growth.
“Having a grant for the STEM program will really help increase the amount of materials we have and improve the learning environment overall,” Basmah said. “Hands-on learning is important in STEM fields, especially when testing prototypes.”
Investing to improve STEM
Berkner High School received its Texas-STEM (T-STEM) designation in 2007 when it introduced its STEM Academy. The school currently offers three STEM tracks: engineering robotics, aeronautical engineering and biotechnology. The new grant will create two new tracks – cybersecurity and STEM management – that will be introduced next school year.
“The grant from TI sounds pretty awesome considering that up until two or three years ago, I’d never really been exposed to an engineering class,” said Kirsten Randolph, a Berkner rising senior who, like Basmah, is part of the STEM Academy. “It had always been just math and science. So for a child who wants to major in engineering or do something that has to do with engineering, they could start from a young age and learn more.”
While the grant has a long-term aim of strengthening the STEM workforce in North Texas, the goal over the next three years focuses on helping the Richardson district build and implement STEM for All in the classroom. In addition to introducing STEM teaching methods and professional development, the grant will help Richardson work with post-secondary education partners in business and industry to ensure relevancy and sustainability of the concept.
“The TI Foundation has a long history of investing to improve STEM education in North Texas,” said Andy Smith, executive director of the foundation. “The Lancaster model has transformed the way STEM subjects are taught and learned across an entire district and has improved math and science scores in a district comprised largely of economically disadvantaged students. With the Berkner High School feeder pattern, we now have an opportunity to scale a proven concept to a larger district with a growing mix of under-represented students.”
1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dallas-Fort Worth Economic Summary, 2015
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