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STEM Programs Need Educators, But Alachua County Is Leading The Pack

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Stephen Foster Elementary at 3800 NW 6th St was one of the first Gainesville schools to implement a specialized STEM program. While students in grades three through five are eligible for participating in a STEM magnet program, all fifth-grade students have access to the science lab. All other classes rotate its use throughout the school year.
Stephen Foster Elementary at 3800 NW 6th St was one of the first Gainesville schools to implement a specialized STEM program. While students in grades three through five are eligible for participating in a STEM magnet program, all fifth-grade students have access to the science lab. All other classes rotate its use throughout the school year. Photo by Kristina Ramer.

Last year, a Florida bill calling for loan forgiveness for STEM educators didn’t make the cut by the Higher Education & Workforce Subcommittee.

But that setback hasn’t stopped Alachua County from quietly encouraging STEM education on its own.

Stephen Foster Elementary School in Gainesville, Florida has had a science lab for about eight years, but four years ago it transformed the program to focus on all four elements of the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Today, it is one of several area schools with a specific STEM focus.

The district has provided a dedicated teacher for the STEM lab. Carly Mikell has held that position for four years and said the program’s positive effects on students reach beyond increased test scores.

“There is a clear difference in engagement, focus on learning and excitement to be there,” she said.

Past assignments have included wind energy, solar models and designing habitats for animals.

Mikell said the activities are designed to spark creative thinking by giving students a chance to apply science knowledge to actual projects.

“It would be great if all schools had a program like this so students could have another way of learning,” she said.

Principal Lisa Peterson explained the program is open to third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students, who can apply for one of 124 spots through a magnet program. They participate in hands-on activities in a lab designed to supplement their regular science and math classes.

“The lessons go so much deeper than in a regular classroom,” Peterson said.

As STEM programs become more common, a need for STEM educators will increase as well.

The Florida House of Representatives will review a new version of the bill this year. Also, as part of the state’s “Keep Florida Working” budget, Gov. Rick Scott proposed $30 million to be spent on training in 2015-16 for STEM occupations and an additional $5 million to encourage STEM degrees in state colleges.

Kathryn Williams, adviser for UFTeach at the University of Florida, said the program allows for students in a STEM discipline to earn a minor in science or mathematics education.

Not all teachers have a strong background in both teaching and a STEM field, but UFTeach students graduate with just that, Williams said.

They begin by teaching in local schools to get experience working with students. If they like it, they can continue in subsequent teaching courses. Under this program, they can get a temporary certification to begin teaching with a bachelor’s degree and don’t need to continue to a master’s degree.

“They really are prepared,” Williams said. “They’ve got the teaching techniques, and they’ve got the math or science knowledge.”

The program began at the University of Texas, and the University of Florida was one of the first to replicate the program.

Though Alachua County residents are fortunate to have access to STEM programs, Williams said not all parts of Florida have the same resources.

“There is a definite need for teachers in this area, especially in the state of Florida,” she said.

About Kristina Ramer

Kristina is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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