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Helping STEM Take Root: Engaging the Minds of Students

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To see a hopeful future for science education, look no further than the Raccoon Creek watershed in rural Ohio. There, Vinton County High School students are literally getting their feet wet, testing water and examining fish to investigate the impact of acid drainage from more than a century's worth of coal mining in the Appalachians.

It's real science, and science that's of real importance to the high-poverty region. But it's also a way for these high school students to discover that there are meaningful careers available to them in their rural community. For some, this realization could inspire them to make a difference in the lives of their families and friends through a career in the sciences.

There's a lot of talk about finding ways to get more students interested in science, math, engineering, and technology -- or STEM, as it's usually known. It's become a national imperative, including calls for improvement from President Barack Obama and at every level of our education system. But we ignore at our peril a problem that goes beyond the sciences and straight to the heart of how we teach kids in our nation's schools. Far too often, we simply don't capture students' imagination and help them connect what they do in the classroom with the world around them. To use a non-science metaphor, we give students nouns in the classroom when they're looking for verbs.

Making real-life connections is critical for practical and personal reasons. First, the push to implement the Common Core State Standards across the country is at its heart an acknowledgement that classroom learning isn't enough -- students must also be able to apply what they've learned in situations beyond school if they are to be competitive in college and careers.

But we've also learned that for too many students, the academic, lecture-driven method of classroom learning is no longer relevant. According to one study, 45 percent of students say they are bored in high school. Many, including disproportionate numbers of minority and low-income students, will drop out or squeak by and then struggle in college -- if they make it there at all. Far too often, students fail to see connections between what they are learning, their communities, and a future job that can sustain them. Even as we push for higher standards, we're pushing away large numbers of students who are capable of reaching them, just not in traditional classroom settings.

Small wonder, then, that we have a skills gap in STEM fields, even as large numbers of young Americans struggle to find their way in an unforgiving economy. But it doesn't have to be that way. Since 2008, we've worked with the AT&T Foundation to implement STEM programs in high-need schools in rural Ohio and Milwaukee. What we've learned is that it's possible to engage even the most jaded students and make them see math and science as a part of their lives.

Consider Milwaukee, which is casting off its past as a manufacturing hub as it seeks to reinvent itself. There, public school students are directly involved in a burgeoning urban farming movement, which is creating new jobs while addressing the "food desert" challenge found in many low-income city centers. At-risk students are volunteering to come in after school and on weekends to tend aquaponic projects, in which they use recycled materials like milk jugs and paper towel rolls to create sustainable systems to grow healthy food in an urban setting.

Students aren't the only ones making new connections. Teachers are sharing strategies with each other and learning from scientists in their communities, bringing the best minds in the fields they teach to bear on what they do in the classroom. Troy Weaver is Vinton County High School's sole chemistry teacher, but his students' work in Raccoon Creek brought him into contact with scientists on the front lines of environmental cleanup. In Milwaukee, even teachers at schools that are not part of the formal Urban School Aquaponics Institute are learning from each other and starting programs of their own. If we expect our schools to live up to the high standards of the Common Core, we have to find more ways for teachers to make the same kinds of real-world connections we are asking of their students..

Teachers everywhere are facing larger class sizes and fewer resources. But the reality is that making STEM education more effective doesn't require more money for schools. It requires real connections to the community around them that can capture students' hearts and minds.

At its heart, STEM is about solving real-world problems. When thinking about how to draw more children into those vital careers, let's not forget about real-world solutions.

Harriet Sanford is President and CEO of the NEA Foundation.