TAMPA — As one class at Middleton High School studied dehydration synthesis, another took a test on computer networks while students in an engineering class designed assembly lines.
"I want to see the process," said Brian Ware, 17, an engineering student. Teammate Andres Salas, 15, said, "I like to use computers." But he doesn't like programming.
It remains to be seen whether these will be lifelong pursuits.
Throughout Middleton and beyond, kids are encouraged to take things apart and put them together, care about the watershed and enter math contests.
"We scream the theme schoolwide to spark students' interest in the sciences and math," said Owen Young, principal of Middleton, whose reputation rests on a thing called STEM.
The term — which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is now a buzzword, espoused by politicians as divergent as President Barack Obama and Gov. Rick Scott as a way to make America competitive.
There's nothing new about STEM. In Pinellas County, it has been around for at least 20 years, said Bill Lawrence, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
But among policymakers confronting a frightening economic future, it has taken center stage.
"In order for Florida's economy to grow with sustainable, high-wage, private sector jobs, we must increase our commitment to prioritizing STEM in both our K-12 and higher education institutions," Scott said last week.
Scott contends a strong economy needs a technology-savvy work force — something local educators have said all along.
"Right now 15 percent of college entrants declare a math or science-heavy major," said Jake Prokop, Hillsborough's STEM grant coordinator.
"In the past, we would have students who were interested in math and science coming from overseas because we have the best colleges and universities in the world."
They still do, Prokop said. But with improved communications technology, "they don't need to stay any more."
A ripple effect
But it's not just the prospect of a science-challenged work force fueling the growth in STEM.
Schools like STEM because it attracts ambitious students and teachers, and corporate partnerships that create jobs.
That's the case at Middleton.
From its campus in a high-crime neighborhood south of E Hillsborough Avenue, Middleton's magnet program sends graduates to MIT, Cornell and other top universities.
Middleton works with engineering firms and offers dual enrollment classes at the University of South Florida. Kids who don't go directly to college qualify for high-tech jobs, or work their way through college.
"And they're not flipping burgers," said Michael Oratowski, who teaches kids how to assemble computers from scratch, build internetworks and install cyber security.
Young is especially proud of Middleton's accreditation through Project Lead the Way, a national provider of STEM programs.
"I want to be the school that, when engineering colleges come to the state of Florida, the first place they stop is Middleton High School," he said.
There's plenty of competition. Across the bay, East Lake High School is a Project Lead the Way school, Lawrence said. Lakewood High School has had a Center for Advanced Technologies for more than 10 years.
This year, responding to community demand in North Pinellas, Countryside High School rolled out ISTEM (the I stands for Institute). Forty-two students are taking part, said assistant principal Cynthia Saginario. In four years she hopes it will be 400. She's encouraged by the call for more attention to STEM.
"I was a child in the 1950s, when there was a big push for math and science because of the space program," she said.
Kids throughout both districts enter robotics competitions whether their schools have STEM programs or not. Jamerson Elementary School has lessons in engineering.
With research suggesting kids decide as early as 4th and 5th grade if they like science, both districts want to start the process early.
McLane Middle School in Brandon recently had students build robots to retrieve water samples at Crystal Springs Preserve, Prokop said.
A new STEM program at Tomlin Middle School, in the heart of Plant City's strawberry farming country, is devoted to environmental resources.
It's already a hit, said principal Susan Sullivan. "I have teachers e-mailing me, saying, 'I want to come to your school.' " And she sees the program serving as an incentive for borderline math and science students to raise their game in honors classes.
The idea, administrators said, is to create connections between courses of study so kids will find relevance in what they learn.
For example: The same eighth-graders at Tomlin who learn about sulphur in introductory physical science learn about phosphate mining in agricultural biotechnology, with each teacher making references to the other's lesson.
"These kids have an opportunity to tie it all together and that's what piques their interest," said Larry Plank, Hillsborough's STEM director. "When it makes sense to them, they'll pursue it. When it's confusing and nebulous and abstract, not so much."
With so many opportunities, educators sometimes wonder why it's so hard to keep kids interested. Some suspect it's because for decades, the big money for math-minded adults was in banking and finance.
All that ended with the onset of the recession.
Still, Lawrence suggested, "maybe some students don't think of science and technology careers as sexy."
Whatever the reason, educators agree the buzz about STEM can only help them nurture a new generation of innovators.
"I think the recession is spurring this, to be quite honest," Plank said. "There are two times when you can be really creative, and that's when you have a lot of resources and when you don't.
"And usually in the middle, nothing much gets done."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@sptimes.