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Businesses buy into STEM

Metro High School Freshman Sujit Rao works on a lab project. Photos Ben French
Metro High School Freshman Sujit Rao works on a lab project. Photos Ben French

Yes, science, technology, engineering and math are important in understanding STEM schools. After all, they are among what educators like to call 21st Century skills that will be needed if our state and country are to prosper in coming years.

Yet, STEM educators say, defining what's happening in Ohio's STEM schools by the literal meaning of the acronym misses the mark. These schools are better understood not by the subjects they teach, but by their approach to teaching: real-world, project-based, cross-curricular, community focused learning that takes place both inside the classroom and out.

Today state supported public STEM schools are organized in hubs centered in Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton and Akron, with two more coming in northwest and southeast Ohio. Each has curriculum and programs based on the particular economic strengths and conditions of its region. And, by design, where there's a school there are business partners -- partners who sit on advisory boards, provide class work feedback, donate computers, serve as mentors, hire interns from the schools, participate in programming and advocate for STEM education.

Why?

"It's all about talent and retaining talent in the area. One of the perceptions we have to overcome is the brain drain (of talented students leaving the area). What we are trying to do is develop a talent network. We want to have a talent pool to draw from, so we can maintain economic competitiveness and capture investment opportunities," explains Rick Rebadow, executive vice president of the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce, and strong partner with the city's National Inventors Hall of Fame School . . . Center for STEM Learning.

Akron, known as "The Rubber Capital of the World," has a history of innovation in the rubber and polymer fields. With that in mind, among the middle school's partners is Goodyear Tire and Rubber, which has corporate offices in Akron. The company has an Engineer-in-Residence program where a Goodyear engineer works with students on various tech and innovation projects once a week.

The business partnerships in Akron extend to teachers as well with apprenticeship grant program.

"This allows teachers to visit area businesses for a week and find out what (workforce) needs are out there, so they can integrate it into their programs. It's continuing education for the teachers, and lets them know what companies are looking for related to certain subject matter," Rebadow says.

The Akron STEM school differs from the rest in Ohio's because it's a middle school; the others are high schools. This allows educators to encourage an interest in science and technology at a younger age, before students start to lose interest, Rebadow reasons.

Tying learning to the "real world" is a major objective of STEM education. In Dayton, Michael Bridges, president of  Peerless Technologies Corporation, is among local business owners who regularly engage with the school. His company, which offers IT, innovation and research and other support services to the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and Department of Homeland Security, is a prime partner for Dayton Regional STEM School.

Bridges is a member of the school board, and participates in the high school's job daylong shadowing program. As a member of the Board, he played a role in helping locate and raise funds for a 123,000-sq.-ft. Value City building in Kettering, which will house the two-year-old school when it moves to permanent digs next year.

Among the learning projects Peerless Technologies have led with students is a high-stakes budgeting project that gives them some insight into the business of running a business.

"We gave them a simulated pricing scenario and asked them how would you bill a customer? So, you have five employees, and overhead and indirect cost. (They calculate) what to charge as hourly rate to break even or make a profit. That gave them an appreciation that there is a business side to STEM," he says.

Bridges is deeply involved with Dayton Regional because he believes in the STEM mission.

"STEM is the backbone of our workforce, and so to invest in STEM education at the junior high and high school level is important," he says. "You don't have a philharmonic without music classes, the same thing applies to STEM education when it comes to innovation and technology."

In Cleveland, General Electric has taken its engagement a step further. A renovated building on the company's campus houses the MC2STEM High School's sophomore class.

GE offer students more than a space in the three-year partnership. More than 200 company volunteers offering tutoring, work the robotics team and fabricators club, or act as a "GE Buddy," having lunch with students twice a month.

"What really caught our interest this is new and innovative partnership. We know that we are really lacking in science, math and tech skills, and STEM education is important for us to grow and make sure the pipeline is there, so we can hire," says Andrea Timan, MC2STEM liaison.

The class also takes part in an intense, 25-day LED innovation project where students go from product concept to development through commercialization and sales.

"We take products through the new production introduction cycles. The build a prototype, go through the financing and IT departments, develop packaging and develop an income statement," Timan says. "With the last project they made lighted safety vests for runners and construction workers. It's amazing what they can do in 25-days."

At the project's end, students undergo some hard-edge questions from GE employees during a product presentation.

"The business leaders are really coming at them, as in a normal business situation," explains Timan. "My work is to really connect the students to real world by bringing them these real world problems that answer real world questions." 

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