Expansion and investment at advanced manufacturing companies. The emergence of a wave of tech- oriented start-ups. A growth spurt in the knowledge economy. All of these trends could tax a region’s supply of brain power. Not so in the Chattanooga region, where education providers stand ready to meet the demand for skilled workers and knowledge jobs – both current and future.
The Challenger STEM Learning Center at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, for example, readies students for those in-demand jobs that require skills in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Each year, the center hosts some 7,000 elementary and middle school students, who are taught to use math and science to accomplish simulated space missions and are introduced to technical skills, such as engineering, chemistry and 3D printing. “We have a simulator where we run space missions, and we have a mission control center, an international space station and a mock-up of a transport, so these students actually move through a process of running a mission using real technology, real science,” says Perry Storey, the center’s director. “While [the activities are] adapted for their age, we don’t make up anything – it’s real science. We always try to engage the students and talk about how these activities are connected with real world experiences, real jobs.”
Part of a global network of 45 Challenger Centers dedicated to STEM education, the Chattanooga center was the first program associated with a university. Storey says the center’s location on the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga campus gives some students their first introduction to higher education.
“While they’re here at our center, we can help them connect to some of the other university programs and help them start thinking about their future. When you see someone in the sixth or seventh grade, it seems like they’re a long way from the workforce, but in reality, they’re less than a decade away from being in the workforce,” Storey says.
Another example of the collaboration between secondary and higher education systems to build the workforce is the STEM School Chattanooga, a public high school on the campus of Chattanooga State Community College. The STEM School, one of 13 magnet schools in the Hamilton County school system, teaches students through hands -on projects that challenge them to think critically and collaboratively to solve problems. The school’s location gives students access to the college’s libraries, laboratories and faculty. Chattanooga State also hosts the school system’s Collegiate High School, which allows students to simultaneously earn a high school diploma and associate’s degree.
Chattanooga State joins a network of area community colleges helping to keep the pipeline of skilled talent flowing. Ranked the 15th Best Community College in America by CNNMoney, Northeast Alabama Community College in Rainsville, Ala, has invested in its STEM programs by building a $11.5 million STEM Center, which houses classrooms, along with biology, math and engineering labs.