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  • Pam Ray

STEM + Community Collaboration = Enchanted Learning

“We’re not going to be at a competitive advantage here [in the United States] unless we provide the appropriate skills, tools, and training,” noted Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis at a recent policy summit in Washington, DC, that addressed our changing workforce dynamics.

Among the topics discussed and frequently repeated by a very diverse panel of leaders in government, business, education, and at think tanks was the mismatch between our educational system and future job skills, with the missing component being a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills.

The Power of STEM

The STEM Model is part of the STEM Education & Modeling Project, which is designed to help increase the number of students who pursue majors and careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The US Department of Commerce has an extensive listing of STEM occupations now and for the future in the areas of computer and math, engineering and surveying, physical and life sciences, and STEM-related managerial jobs.

A July 2011 report from the Department cited that STEM-skilled jobs grew three times faster than non-STEM jobs over the past 10 years, and STEM-related occupations between 2008 and 2018 are projected to grow by 17 percent compared to just 9.8 percent growth for non-STEM occupations.

The report also highlighted that STEM occupations command higher wages, earning 26 percent more than non-STEM counterparts.

Summit participants shared a strong consensus that investment in educational excellence and innovation will drive economic growth in both our national competitiveness and the global marketplace.

While policy discussions to promote STEM education are happening from the top-down, the real actions in executing STEM education practices are being built from the bottom-up.

Businesses, educators (local school districts to universities) and communities with a drive and passion to collaborate and to build on the strength of local partnerships are helping to achieve national goals that aim to prepare our next generation for the realities of an evolving workforce.

Community Partnerships Strengthen Global Job-Readiness

Its location on the west side of the Chesapeake Bay makes Maryland’s Anne Arundel County a natural sailing capital, as is its most famous city, Annapolis, which is also the state’s capital.

The shared geography of county and city have spurred a dynamic synergy between the Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) STEM program (led by assistant superintendent Dr. Maureen McMahon) and the Annapolis-based maritime community (under the leadership of Susan Nahmias, education director for the locally based National Sailing Hall of Fame and Sailing Center).

Together, with enormous community support, they are creating a national pilot project to teach math and science through sailing. Two years into the partnership, “outcomes far exceed our greatest expectations,” reported Dr. McMahon, with hundreds of high-school students experiencing STEM sailing programs.

“Their algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and physics classroom learning all take shape and are put to the test when at the helm of a sailboat,” explains Dr. McMahon.

A Day In the Life

In one of two AACPS STEM Sailing Summer Bridge programs, with navigation equipment and boats donated from the maritime community, students split their days between classroom-based application of math and science skills and actual sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.

In the classroom, they are assigned as teams to develop a plan and strategy for an eight-day sail in the British Virgin Islands (BVIs) from departure to arrival at the appointed destination each day.

They must take into account wind direction and speed, wave heights, points of sail, type of boat being sailed, weather forecasts, charts, and other variables. They must also select their boat for a balance of inshore comfort and offshore performance based on manufacturer specs. On the water, they experience the practical impact of wind and weather on how they sail their boat and how weather and wind can affect a charted course.

As education director, Nahmias exposes students to sailing using a variety of seven different boats over eight days. Students sail each afternoon on donated boats, and with a coach on each boat, youngsters get to test in the water what they have learned in the classroom.

“We were looking for a way to create a generation of sailors, and by engaging kids in the classroom and incorporating the hands-on experience that is only made possible by generosity of the sailing schools, sailing clubs, businesses, and individual donated resources, it is happening here in Annapolis,” stated Nahmias.

A former teacher and current sailing school director, Carole Jordan, took a seat at the organizing table and immediately saw the benefits of combining STEM academic learning with hands-on sailing experience.

“The whole maritime community pulled together to make it work,” said Jordan, who participates directly in the STEM program by donating the sailing school’s boats for a day of team-building exercises with the students. One student reflected in the final evaluation, “I enjoyed learning how to use a navigation chart to plot a multi-day voyage in varying conditions.” Another said, “Combining classroom and sailing made it all come alive.”

The Bottom Line

While national discussions continue on the mismatch between our educational system and future job skills, local innovation in education and community collaboration are bringing classroom learning and real-world experience together in a way that inspires and motivates students to follow career paths critical to meeting our future workforce needs. This type of learning is truly enchanting.

Students “must see how their STEM learning fits into the world, especially the technology-rich, fast-paced world in which they ‘live’ as digital natives,” Dr. McMahon wrote. “Our contemporary school-community collaboration model demonstrates how 1+1 can be greater than 2.”

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