Written by Hannan Adely
With schools set to open in about three weeks, the hottest trend in education is the launching of special academies for science, technology, engineering and math, aimed at training future high-tech workers and capturing the fascination of young people born to a digital age.
The Tenafly School District will open its STEM academy, bringing together the four fields of study, in September, and there already are established ones in the Cresskill, Bergenfield and Paterson public schools, as well as high-tech learning centers in private schools.
While specialized academies have been promoted as a means to raising the achievement of American students, meeting workplace demands, and helping young people compete with their counterparts in other nations in a fast-evolving high-tech economy, some critics say such programs are vastly uneven in quality and resources and offer advice on how the best well-established academies have succeeded.
Educators say the small schools or school programs are intended to improve students’ knowledge and global competitiveness and encourage career choices in the STEM fields. Demand is also coming from students who have a growing interest in computers and technology, from families that believe the coursework offers a path to success, and from business leaders who say such skills will keep America competitive in a changing world economy.
But critics say the academies alone don't go far enough unless they have the right resources and teaching talent. Some vary in quality or lack proper facilities, including well-equipped science labs.
“I have visited the Bergen Academies and other high schools in the state, and there are significant differences in terms of the facilities available and the overall environment the students have to work in,” said Robert S. Prezant, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at Montclair State University.
While some students have more advantages, Prezant said success also relies on factors life home life and community support.
“I think it is always going to reflect on quality of programs and the questions that the children are being asked at home,” he said.
School and business leaders say the results of the academies are hard to measure because they don’t have common criteria or frameworks. But many believe it is a promising effort to raise student interest in those fields.
“The lack of a STEM-literate population is a problem,” said Dana Egreczky, senior vice president of workforce development for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “That continues with the fact that we cannot find the STEM workers who follow through to college and become the engineers, scientists and mathematicians we need.”
College graduates who major in science, technology, engineering and math have higher employment rates and make more money in their careers, research shows. One survey of the class of 2008, by the National Center for Education Statistics, found that graduates in those fields earned $15,500 a year more than their peers and that their unemployment rate in 2012 was 5 percent, compared with 7.1percent for non-STEM majors.
Egreczky highlights those benefits when she visits schools around the state to get students to think about STEM careers.
“That little bit of fact they get about job availability and salary — that gets students thinking carefully about these fields,” she said. “They take more courses and are more interested in these fields and what it can do for them.”
State and school officials have taken notice of workforce trends and longstanding concerns that American students trail other countries in math and science.
Academies have been opening for students who show interest and aptitude in science, technology, engineering and math. Students in those academies are expected to take advanced placement or honors classes, or both, in math and science and get hands-on experience in the fields.
When Tenafly’s academy opens in September, students will take four STEM electives in addition to regular requirements.
At Cresskill’s academy, opened in 2013, students also go on field trips, hear from guest speakers, do a research project as seniors, and get school credit for internships, workshops and robotics club.
In Bergenfield, which has had its academy for at least six years, freshmen must attend at least five engineering and technology seminars. Students also work with a mentor on a research project over four years and must compete in at least one state or national science competition.
The Paterson School District, which opened its academy four years ago, has a robotics club for students with a grade-point average of 3.5 or higher.
Several private and charter schools focused on STEM have also opened in recent years. And in June, the private Dwight-Englewood School began construction on a $20 million education building for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which is expected to be completed in fall 2015.
The patchwork of academy programs is natural because of how the American school system is designed, said Meghan Snow, director of the Office of STEM for the New Jersey Department of Education.
“While we set the standards for math and science and other areas, how the districts decide to deliver those standards is locally decided,” she said. She added that the amount of money for such programs is also determined at the local level.
But STEM programs face the same problem that all schools have had: unequal resources. Students in poorer schools may have fewer advanced placement classes or lack science labs and properly trained teachers, said Tracy Gray, managing director at the American Institutes for Research.
Local educators say they are aware of the limitations but are taking steps to bolster their programs.
In Paterson, Superintendent Donnie Evans said that he was retraining teachers, partnering with area universities and using financial incentives to fill the demand for STEM teachers.
There are statewide initiatives that also help, including a fellowship program that pays $30,000 stipends to science students in exchange for commitments to work in special-needs schools for three years.
The authors of a 2011 report by the National Research Council say that it’s hard to measure success because programs are so different and lack shared criteria. Also, some have selective entry based on grades and recommendations, while others are all-inclusive.
But the report outlines indicators of successful schools, including having clear standards and curriculum; highly trained, qualified teachers; adequate instruction time; and equal access to resources.
“There are pockets of excellence everywhere, but it’s hard to tell in the aggregate whether we are moving the needle” toward improving U.S. performance, said Natalie Nielsen, senior program officer with the board on science education at the National Research Council.
Students are embracing the new programs and like the challenges, say educators, who point out that the STEMs are among their most popular academies.
Asraful Islam, a student at Paterson’s STEM academy, said he liked the “fun educational environment,” which includes challenging courses, after-school activities like the green club and robotics, and academic competitions that allow him to meet new people.
“STEM is an awesome academy,” he said. “It’s helping me find the career and college of my choosing.”
With the demands of these academies and new standards, STEM students may get less learning time in areas like the humanities and social studies.
But many districts also offer academies in non-science areas as part of an overall trend toward small schools and more personalized education.
“For some people it might be a problem that students are spending less time reading literature, but others may feel that for students, especially for those who have a high affinity for STEM, it’s a good thing,” Gray said.
School and state officials are also expanding and starting after-school and summer programs and scholarships and competitions to encourage students in those interests.
New Jersey and dozens of more states have also adopted new academic standards that put more focus on science and math skills and that were designed with input from businesses.
The iD Tech Camp, a national summer program, has grown about 20 percent each year since it was founded 16 years ago, said Karen Thurm Safran, vice president for marketing. The camp, which served 1,700 students in New Jersey and has a waiting list, offers classes in Web and app design, 3-D animation, robotics, filmmaking and video-game design.
“The premise is to show students how they can turn something that’s a passion or interest into so much more, a college degree or a future job,” Thurm Safran said.
Jeff Scheininger, who owns a company in Linden that makes industrial hoses, said the need for better STEM education was evident in business. He recalled that most applicants for a recent job at his factory couldn’t pass a basic math test.
“I have watched over two or three decades as my mostly New Jersey-educated workforce had morphed into a mostly foreign-educated workforce,” said Scheininger, the immediate past chairman of the Chamber of Commerce.
He said he believes new academic standards, more teacher training and a focus on math and science from a young age can help turn around American education.
“You can stay ahead of the curve all the way through and produce a generation of numerative Americans — people that understand how many fifths fit into five-sixteenths and can envision it and make sense of it,” he said.
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