STEM Education Takes Root In Charlotte, NC Schools

The Charlotte region is making a major push in STEM education.

Bea Quirk
On Thursday, August 22, 2013 - 10:41
Charlotte, NC

Do the math: Charlotte USA is making a major commitment to programs to expand teaching and learning in STEM disciplines, the science, technology, engineering and math principles that prepare students for in-demand careers. STEM-related learning tracks are a vital component in filling the talent pipeline for innovation-heavy industry clusters in the region, including advanced manufacturing, aerospace, life sciences, medical devices and energy technology. With national studies showing increased demand for STEM programs in schools and technology-oriented training programs for current workers, Charlotte USA is stepping up to meet the challenge on several fronts.

One example is the STEMersion program, which is teaching middle school and high school teachers about the in-demand and emerging careers available in Charlotte USA. The program is a partnership between Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Central Piedmont Community College and major employers in the region, such as Livingston & Haven, Piedmont Natural Gas, Sarstedt Group, Siemens and Time Warner Cable.

"Several local businesses don't have enough technical workers to support their future hiring needs, so these companies got together to begin STEMersion," says Chris Paynter, dean of STEM at Central Piedmont Community College. "Many area teachers felt they had an incomplete idea of top jobs available in the Charlotte region because they spend their time in the classroom and aren't necessarily industry-focused."

Company to Company

STEMersion includes company visits over a two-week period by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teachers, who spend a day at each company to learn about education skills that the businesses look for when hiring.

"There are lots of exciting, challenging and lucrative career paths for students to choose in STEM, with high demand for mechanical, civil and electrical engineering and technology professionals," Paynter says. "Right now, the STEMersion program is available only to middle and high school teachers in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools each summer, but there are plans to expand into Cabarrus, Gaston and Rowan counties."

One area company that was a charter member of the STEMersion steering committee is AREVA Inc., which produces nuclear power while advocating a clean energy future. The company relies heavily on engineering and technical talent. Each summer, the company invites 25 STEMersion teachers to its site.

"We have a simulator lab that provides them with an experience as close as possible to being in a control room at a nuclear power plant," says Laura Clise, AREVA director of external communications and stakeholder engagement. "The teachers learn quite a bit of information that they can relay to their students, including that AREVA offers careers in areas such as project management, outage services, business development, sales and, of course, engineering."

Market-Driven Programs

STEM-related learning is front and center at a number of the region's higher education institutions. Rowan-Cabarrus Community College was one of 12 community colleges across the nation to receive part of a $15 million U.S. Department of Labor grant to partner with employers to train displaced workers for careers in the biosciences and health care. UNC Charlotte's Center for STEM Education offers a range of programs and resources to improve K-12 STEM teaching methods in North Carolina, and it also offers several programs to encourage STEM learning, including student competitions and other events.

At Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, the College of STEM has developed a unique model for colleges by employing a market-driven approach that incorporates multidisciplinary learning to prepare students for careers in emerging industries such as renewable energy, medical informatics, bioinformatics, electronics, robotics and cyber security. JCSU has 330 students in its STEM curriculum and expects the count to reach 450 by 2016. The university has broken ground on a 62,000-square-foot Science Center funded primarily by a $25 million grant from The Duke Endowment. The three-story science center, part of the university's STEM complex, will open in 2014 and feature a large auditorium, classrooms, labs and a 250-seat lecture hall.

"Our faculty is transforming traditional STEM education into more market-driven classrooms to compete in the new economy," says Jennifer Gaskins, JCSU assistant director of communications and marketing. "STEM subjects aren't just primarily for male students anymore. More than 50 percent of our current STEM students at Johnson C. Smith University are females."