STEAM focus a key for employers

Editorial from the Greenville News:

South Carolina has for a long time been working hard to prepare students in high school to take jobs in the emerging high-technology manufacturing industry that is taking root here. That’s important, because this industrial sector is essential to the state’s economic well being.

Related: Greenville classrooms to add STEAM

In Greenville County, the efforts are taking the form of strong push to educate students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, arts and math — the so-called STEAM fields. Those efforts will get a significant boost when the upcoming school year begins as the district opens the new Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School that is dedicated to STEAM.

It also will be helped as the district begins spreading the ideas of workplace collaboration and project learning — essential to success in STEAM fields — throughout the School District.

To that end, a group of 20 middle school teachers have spent time this summer developing projects based on the Reedy River and Falls Park to try out on their students, according to a recent report by Greenville News reporter Ron Barnett. The goal, as one of the teachers put it in the report, is to connect “all the disciplines of education with real life.”

That is vital because the goal of state educators has long been to show students how the things they learn in school can be applied to real life — how education translates to career, in other words.

In a recent op-ed column in The News, Dee Dee Washington, the Greenville County School District’s associate superintendent for academics, said that innovation in the public schools is gaining support. She offered several examples of what innovative classrooms look like:

• Students are actively engaged in their learning, including working as a team on projects to research and solve problems.

• Technology is used to expand learning.

• Teachers lecture less and have flexibility and time to work with individual students.

• There are clear measures of accountability.

• Character traits needed for success in the workplace are emphasized.

In addition to the new Fisher Middle that opens this fall, Washington mentioned other efforts that lead this direction including the A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School that has a focus that very much fits with the new middle school, the district’s 11 magnet academies, the Fine Arts Center, the International Baccalaureate Program, Sterling School and others.

Here’s an important takeaway: Although the focus on STEAM is really taking off this year, the emphasis on transforming how children learn in order to better meet the needs of state employers is ongoing and is evident in an array of School District resources. Greenville County is among the state’s leaders in this sort of innovation.

It is important that these efforts are being driven by some of the very employers that will benefit. For example, the district-wide efforts to promote the focus on the STEAM disciplines is being funded by a two-year grant from the Bosch Community Fund, and it was a joint effort between the School District and Clemson University.

Dani Herro, a Clemson teacher education professor, summed up the value in a collaborative effort such as this: “It really fosters a partnership that’s responsive to what business is asking for,” Herro said. “So that’s what we’re hearing from industry leaders and educators. This is what we really need, this is the requisite skill set.”

As state economic development leaders market South Carolina to potential employers, one of the most vital things that they can offer is an adequately trained workforce. That training starts well before an individual reaches college or even graduates from high school. And work done now to show students the value of their education will pay dividends not next year or the year after, but perhaps a decade from now.

The success of efforts such as Clemson’s International Center for Automotive Research, and the creation of jobs at employers such as BMW, Michelin and Boeing — and the many small-business suppliers that serve those companies — are the seeds that have helped all of us see the need for this focus on the STEAM disciplines.

State education leaders, state economic development leaders and business leaders throughout the region deserve credit for making this a priority and for giving these important disciplines the attention they need in our local schools.