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Education: Focus on STEM courses will aid industry

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

New high school course offerings in science, engineering and computers are an important step in making Georgetown County and its students more competitive, according to members of a task force pushing technology issues in the schools.

In December, a meeting of industry leaders and local officials convened by state Rep. Stephen Goldfinch asked the school district to create a magnet school for science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM skills. Last week, the school board approved a new high school course catalog that adds engineering, biomedical science and computer science. The district plans to add middle school classes that introduce students to those subjects.

“Technology is now as basic as reading, writing and arithmetic,” said Brian Tucker, the county’s director of economic development. And technology, he added, “is not just giving every kid an iPad.”

“It’s extremely important to the county and the industry leaders around here,” Goldfinch said. “I’m pleased with the progress that we’ve made. I’m very pleased that the district has bought in.”

The district’s move toward STEM skills will reach the earliest grades. Starting this year, keyboarding will be taught in elementary schools. It will eventually be phased out in middle and high schools.

The district has also applied for grants to adopt a STEM program from Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit that provides curriculum and training, in elementary schools. It also wants to introduce the Project Lead the Way curriculum in middle schools as the introduction to the new high school courses. The county’s four high schools and the middle schools that lead into them will decide which areas to focus on, said Patti Hammel, the district’s director of student performance.

For instance the eighth-grade “Design and Modeling” class would lead to a ninth-grade “Introduction to Engineering Design” and “Principles of Engineering” in 10th grade. After that, there are a range of engineering, architecture and computer classes that the district can select. Many of the district’s Advanced Placement courses tie into these classes, Hammel said.

The district will have even more options if it adopts a recommendation from high school principals to offer online classes from Fuel Education, a Virginia-based firm. Those include a wider range of foreign language, AP and technology courses. “It’s another effort to strengthen the curriculum,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said.

He said all the changes were a first step toward developing STEM skills.

“It’s a great first step. A step in the right direction,” said Stella Mercado, president and CEO of Mercom, a technology firm based at Pawleys Island. Like Tucker and Dozier, she is a member of the magnet program task force. The school district’s effort will help fill a need for skilled employees and make the county’s schools more attractive to people who move to the area for high-tech jobs.

“From an employer standpoint, you have general STEM requirements for any position,” Mercado said. “For families we recruit, they want that for their children.”

That’s something Tucker said he hears more and more often. There is another advantage to the district’s efforts. “There are really good exchanges with the district and technology and industry,” he said. “I’m really happy to see that.”

He expects that during the coming year people from the district and from industry will spend more time “in each others’ space.”

Goldfinch hopes to meet soon with task force members. He wants to know how success will be measured. “We need a metric,” he said. “Has this worked someplace else?”

The ultimate measure, he said, will be if the county is able to develop and retain students with STEM skills.

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