Rutherford County is Teaching the Techies of Tomorrow

Rutherford County schools, MTSU readying tomorrow’s workforce.

By
Kim Madlom
On Tuesday, June 23, 2020 - 14:52
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As technology continues transforming business and industry, the need for a tech-savvy workforce grows. Rutherford County is meeting that need through targeted programs at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels.

Partnerships between area schools, postsecondary institutions and companies are supporting IT programs that serve students at Blackman, Central Magnet, La Vergne, Riverday, Rockvale, Siegel and Stewarts Creek high schools. New in 2021, Central Magnet plans to offer a data science program in partnership with Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU).

Meanwhile, MTSU builds on those skills through programs such as degrees in engineering technology, engineering mechatronics, mathematics, psychology and information technology, among others. The university is home to the Data Science Institute (DSI), which works to ready people for the data world, giving students the opportunity to develop skills outside the classroom through real-world projects as well as through data hackathons called Data Dives.

Combined, these initiatives are preparing the Rutherford County workforce for the more than 10,000 new STEM-related jobs expected to be created over the next decade.

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Dr. Charlie Apigian

STEM-Focused Learning

“We’re focused on problem-based learning,” says Rocky Fork Middle School STEM instructor Bobbie Jo Meredith. “We introduce students to real-world problems and help them use the skills they are learning throughout their classes to attack and solve those problems.”

Meredith leads students through a crime scene forensic investigation – think CSI – that draws on their skills in writing, math and multiple sciences. Students gather evidence, lift fingerprints and analyze blood samples. The exercise requires collaboration, communication and critical thinking – skills that can be applied to solving problems in areas ranging from health care to environmental science.

This is just one example of a school in the district working to develop and sharpen students’ STEM skills for the future. The Rutherford County Schools (RCS) STEM Expo, launched by Stephanie Finley, the science and STEM specialist, pre-K-8, for RCS, is a countywide event where students in grades 6-12 present original research in one of four categories – STEM research, agricultural STEM, engineering and technology – to different community members, industry partners and teachers.

“With the growing STEM careers that are out there, we’re not able to fill enough of them, and I feel like events like this help pique student interests …” Finley says. “I mean, I’ve had several students come back to me and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I want to be a biomedical engineer now. I did this project on prosthesis, and I loved it, and that’s what I want to do.’”

Similarly, STEAM Walk, held quarterly at Overall Creek Elementary, gives each grade (K-6) the chance to – in an open-house-style – present to other grades within the school a culminating STEM project that has been integrated into the content they’ve learned all quarter. For example, the school’s fifth graders recently tried to design and engineer Mars rovers.

“The No. 1 thing is exposure to the different careers,” says Don Bartch, principal of the elementary. “(Plus), it’s a little bit of teaching them to push through, problem solve, work together – a lot of those 21st-century skills that employers are looking for.”

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Photo by Discovery Center at Murfree Spring

Data Drives Business

Data matters to businesses - collecting it, analyzing it and understanding it. Data informs decision making and helps businesses understand customers and trends, improve services and products and create additional revenue. Created in 2018 and only one of a handful of institutions in the nation leading the way on educating future data scientists, MTSU’s DSI is developing people for today’s data-driven world by promoting research and public/ private collaborations in the field of big data and creating opportunities to bring in grants for projects.

“The only way to truly get the education needed to work in data science is to experience it firsthand,” says Dr. Charles Apigian, DSI co-director. “What DSI does well is bridge the gap between academics and industry. Our students do projects, research and events with company partners that benefit students and the businesses or organizations.”

DSI has helped guide the development of new bachelor-and master-level majors in data science beginning in fall 2020.

“The demand for data scientists is intense and predicted to soar nationwide by 28% this year alone,” says MTSU President Sidney McPhee. “In Middle Tennessee, tech workforce growth is projected to outpace national growth by an eye-popping 78% over the next five years.”

Meeting the Test

Excellent education for all students is a high priority in Rutherford County, and new high-quality schools continue to pop up all over the region. Three of the most recent are Salem Elementary School in Murfreesboro, Rocky Fork Elementary in Smyrna and Rockvale High School in Rockvale, which all opened for the 2019-2020 school year. Salem Elementary is a K-6 school with an opening enrollment of 730 students and capacity for 1,000, Rocky Fork Elementary is K-5 with 785 students and capacity for 1,000, and Rockvale High has 2,035 students and capacity for 2,300.

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Photo by Discovery Center at Murfree Spring

Deep in Data

The opportunity for immersive learning is an advantage provided to Middle Tennessee State University students in the computer and data science programs.

Two impressive immersive experiences offered to MTSU students are the annual Hack MT and more frequent Data Dives.

Hack MT gathers tech industry experts, including software developers and programmers, to work with computer science/computer information students from area universities for 36 hours to invent new web platforms, games, mobile apps and electronic gadgets.

In early 2020, an MTSU team won the Hackers Choice Award for developing an app that helps provide free food for the needy and homeless. In 2019, a 25-member team, spanning several colleges and cross-disciplines, collaborated with Nashville-based Second Harvest Food Bank to help the nonprofit improve its warehouse efficiency.

Following that event, MTSU hosted a two-day Data Dive further focusing on Second Harvest. A Data Dive provides a hackathon-style event for students to work on real-world data. For Second Harvest, the problem that was addressed was analyzing the warehouse operations and how the donation of food flows in and what is most in demand.

“The best part of the event was seeing students with no experience working next to faculty and other IT professionals,” says Dr. Charles Apigian, co-director of the Data Science Institute.

If you'd like to learn more about the Rutherford County area, check out the latest issue of Livability: Rutherford County, Tennessee