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STEM Programs Bolster Eastern North Carolina’s Workforce

Learn how cutting-edge STEM programs in Eastern North Carolina schools are preparing students for high-tech jobs that promise to transform the regional economy.

By Robert L. Sample on August 28, 2015

Greenville, NC
Greenville / Brian McCord

Decades ago, most middle and high school students took shop class to learn woodworking and other low-tech skills. These days, students who attend Eastern North Carolina schools are completing high-tech projects in fields like aerospace and robotics, thanks to initiatives designed to make them aware of exciting career opportunities close to home. At the heart of local economic development efforts is the STEM East network, which builds partnerships between local employers, government organizations, and schools, colleges and universities, with the goal of getting each entity to recognize its contribution to the region’s economy.

The organization facilitates the development of professional teacher-training programs, along with the creation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math, or Strategies That Engage Minds) centers, where students team up on assignments that require critical-thinking and problem-solving skills – assignments a scientist, engineer or mathematician might be required to complete in the real world. STEM curriculum also helps students develop the know-how to earn career readiness certificates (CRCs), used by employers to determine whether potential hires have the foundational skills necessary to work in today’s tech-driven environment. “Profiling the STEM center curricula using the same tool we use when profiling local jobs allows the students to see the links between the classroom and the workplace,” says Mary Paramore, director of Business & Industry with Pitt Community College. “It also creates a common language for employers and educators to use when addressing any skills gaps.”

The alignment with CRCs are another reason why STEM East has expanded, most recently into Pitt County and Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools. “What we hope is that a lot of kids get into the STEM or STEAM model” – the ‘A’ in STEAM refers to art or design – and then go on to a two- or four-year institution or be ready to work in one of those fields,” says Dr. Ethan Lenker, superintendent of Pitt County Schools. “We’ve got plenty of places to work right here in Pitt County and Eastern North Carolina for people who develop that mind-set.” Dr. Anthony D. Jackson, superintendent of Nash-Rocky Mount Schools, echoes that sentiment, noting that “our goal with the STEM expansion is to give our students real-life experiences, and – with our learning centers supported by local industry –  pathways toward STEM-related careers.”

Location and Workforce Drive Economic Development in Eastern NC

Pipeline to Careers

STEM East’s efforts foster partnerships at every level of development. North Carolina State University’s Kenan Fellows Program provides select K-12 teachers with the opportunity to engage in a yearlong fellowship, embedding them in university and industry settings to inspire them to create innovative lessons for students and professional development workshops for colleagues. STEM East has actively promoted this program, soliciting sponsorships from local companies and encouraging school districts to identify interested teachers. Similarly, East Carolina University “will be doing summer academies for middle school teachers of math, science, arts and design that will be focused on advanced manufacturing and innovation,” says Dr. David White, dean of ECU’s College of Engineering and Technology. Students and teachers will also have the opportunity to visit local manufacturing facilities, giving them further exposure to industry partners. The program will help demystify advanced manufacturing careers, White says. “While most parents would like to see advanced manufacturing in their community, a significantly smaller number see their child as a candidate for a position in advanced manufacturing,” he says. The program seeks to bridge the “disconnect in regards to the opportunities available,” White says.

Global, New Schools

Another initiative is the Global Schools Network of North Carolina, with partners such as Onslow County, along with Greene, Duplin, Dare, Elizabeth City-Pasquotank counties. “We realize our students will need international skills such as language and cultural skills, and also critical-thinking skills to succeed,” says Rick Stout, superintendent of Onslow County Schools. “We do this through enhanced language learning and global literacy programs, as well as professional development opportunities, school-based programs and community outreach.” North Carolina New Schools, a nonprofit professional services agency that assists educators with transforming classrooms into environments that blend high school, college and work-based learning, aims to prepare students to complete for 21st-century jobs. Washington County’s Northeast Regional School of Biotechnology and Agriscience is a prime example of an industry-focused high school of this nature that prepares students for the workforce, while allowing them to earn up to two years of college credits.

Eastern NC Leaders Cultivate Workforce

Thinking Globally, Prospering Locally

The benefits of thinking globally are paying off locally. “Our goal is to promote regional prosperity,” says ECU’s White. “Our employers consistently tell us they want to hire homegrown talent – people who grew up in our region and are engaged in the community. So we need to provide those employers with good talent.” In STEM centers, “kids are working toward something – and they are failing and having to overcome those failures,” says Steve Hill, executive director of STEM East. “That’s how they are developing the soft skills employers want to see.”

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