Eastern North Carolina is building an education-industry partnership as impressive as its coastal scenery. The region's emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education is producing a pool of highly skilled employees for years to come – and both area employers and students are benefiting from this effort. Championed by education and industry leaders, the nonprofit STEM East initiative allows businesses to partner with schools to design curriculum to prepare students to secure well-paying jobs in high-in-demand industries when they graduate high school or college. The program seeks to close mid-level skill gaps in the workforce by reaching students before they have a chance to become disillusioned with education and showing them how their coursework translates into the real world. “If you pair this process with curriculum developed through employers and based on projected job skill needs, you have a combination of a ‘grow your own’ and a ‘just in time’ workforce development model,” says Steve Hill, executive director of STEM East. “Students and employers are better served by the creation of graduates who have the right skills for jobs that are readily available.” The region’s need for skilled workers is growing as baby boomers retire, and that's why STEM is so vital to building a trained workforce for the future, says Wendy Marlowe, associate vice president for economic development at Nash Community College. “Any manufacturer with their ‘head in the game’ knows their current workforce is aging out and they need a pipeline to replace them,” Marlowe says. “We’re here to help make that happen.”
Training Tomorrow’s High-Tech Workers
The effort to cultivate talent for Eastern North Carolina’s businesses starts early. The STEM East initiative funds 30 STEM Learning Centers in area middle schools across six counties that teach students how to use math and science to solve problems. Instead of just memorizing algebraic formulas, students at Contentnea-Savannah K-8 School dissect how these formulas could help them solve potential problems in the workplace.
"Rather than having students complete end-of-chapter material in a book, our courses are project-based," says Lenoir County Public Schools superintendent Steve Mazingo. The system is working to retool its K-8 math curriculum "to lead students toward ultimately taking first- and second-level high school math while still in middle school," Mazingo says. Students at Havelock Middle School experience the fun and relevant side of STEM subjects early on. “Kids don’t know that an engineer has touched everything they use,” says teacher Marlena Bleau says. “
I let them know that those fields are out there, that they’re hands-on and they’re fun.” Bleau regularly brings industry leaders into the classroom to let kids hear how exciting STEM fields can be. Many of her students’ parents work at the Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center across the street. “It’s made their parents’ job more real,” Bleau says.
“I’ve learned how to translate things that benefit our local economy into the classroom. I ask them to look at the opportunities that are available right here in Eastern North Carolina. You have the opportunity to make so much money if you go down this path; you don’t even have to leave.” Bleau's own summer internship at the Fleet Readiness Center inspired her to develop a curriculum that shows students how to use composites to build and repair materials and teaches them to design, create and test their own. Some of Bleau’s students could one day end up in one of Gene Dixon’s engineering classes at Eastern Carolina University. “We are the second-largest general engineering program in the country, and our alumni are making an impact with their employers and their careers,” says Dixon, who oversees ECU’s Capstone project – a graduation requirement that has students collaborate a local industry on a months’-long project. ECU's engineering program has grown explosively, from 28 students to 500 in just 10 years. About 95 percent of graduates get a job within 90 days of graduation, and at least 65 percent are working at North Carolina firms, according to ECU estimates.
Also known for its computer science and life sciences programs, ECU recently debuted a transfer program for local community college students with applied science associate degrees, allowing them to pursue STEM-based fields even further. And community colleges across the region are strengthening their industrial ties, boosting technical training in advanced machining, mechatronics and welding. Successful partnerships between educators and businesses are a win-win for everybody, Havelock Middle School's Bleau says, especially students. "It's nice to find out what they're good at before they choose a career," she says.