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STEM skills key to global competition

March 14, 2012

Leaders say STEM education may lead young people to jobs in the future.

STEM — or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — has been the focus of several education initiatives throughout Catawba County in recent months.

On Wednesday, education professionals from Hickory and across the state agreed that STEM education produces results.

“It draws out the creativity and innovation to drive new products and create new ways of working,” said Lamar Mitchell, director of Catawba County Champions of Education. “We want to make sure our students coming up are equipped to compete."

In a recent study, the U.S. finished 25th out of 30 countries across the world in a math assessment, Mitchell told a large crowd Wednesday during a Champions of Education quarterly breakfast.

Mitchell is right.

The United States placed 31st out of more than 50 countries that competed in a global math assessment in 2009, according to a Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The PISA, which is conducted through the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), assesses how prepared teenagers are in math, science and several other categories.

In that same PISA assessment in 2009, U.S. students placed 23rd in science.

The United States’ scoring placed it behind countries like China, Japan, Germany and Korea — nations that the U.S. will compete for jobs with in the future.

“We’re getting our butts kicked from other countries around the world,” Mitchell said. “We want the U.S. to be competing with other countries, but unfortunately that’s not the case.”

Area education leaders, such as Mitchell, have launched several STEM-based programs recently to try to correct that trend.

Tracy Hall, executive director of Education Matters in Catawba County, organized a series of “extreme STEM tours” in February and March for more than 1,300 eighth-grade students from Catawba County Schools.

Students toured businesses and spoke with professionals from a long list of area companies, including manufacturers, medical experts, technology producers and food distributors, among many others. At the end of the tour, students learned of what courses they can take to start a path toward a STEM-related field at Catawba Valley Community College.

“Taking students into a work environment is the most powerful thing we can do — especially those groups that aren’t open to the public,” Hall said.

She said students don’t get to see professionals in STEM-based fields, unlike professional sports careers, civic duties and other jobs that are more popular with youth.

Education Matters is considering extending the tours to Hickory Public Schools and Newton-Conover City Schools in the future, Hall said.

Catawba County Champions of Education, Appalachian State University and N.C. State University will also partner again this summer to hold another round of Future Engineers camps for elementary and middle school students. The programs are week-long summer day camps held at the N.C. Center for Engineering Technologies (NCCET) in Hickory, according to the camps website.

Already, more than 200 students have applied for about 160 spots in the camps, Mitchell said. For more information or to apply your student for one of the camps, visit nccet.appstate.edu/future-engineers-camp.

Dr. Laura Bottomley, director of The Engineering Place at NCSU, helped organize the Future Engineers camps. She said there is a host of engineering needs that the next generation will have to fill.

“I think we do need some more engineers. And not only do we need more, but we need some different kinds,” Bottomley said.

Bottomley, who addressed the Champions of Education crowd as the main speaker, said there is a strong need for engineers in fields related to natural disasters, clean water production and temporary shelters, among many others.

“The issue of clean water is very bad right now, and it’s only going to get worse,” she said. “Who is it that knows how to get clean water — engineers. We don’t just need engineers to fill theoretical jobs, we need engineers to survive. But engineering has done so much for people’s lives that we take it for granted.”

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