The STEM conversation has spread across grades from kindergarten to college. But some say the sweet spot for STEM success may actually fall at that crucial, awkward step between it all.
The University of South Florida is focused on producing a new crop of STEM middle school teachers, thanks to the school's largest ever gift from the Helios Education Foundation — $3.16 million.
USF hopes to send 80 new STEM teachers into Hillsborough County middle schools by 2017. They'll be certified to teach the subject matter in grades 5-9, and know how to impart it to one of the most vulnerable student populations.
More than 90 percent of middle school students in the U.S. are taught math or science by a teacher working outside a field of expertise, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
In young minds, research shows, that can have dire consequences. Math and science literacy for American 15-year-old students dropped steadily over a decade compared to students in other countries, according to an international assessment. Johns Hopkins University researchers found that if students begin to get off track as early as sixth grade, it can mean years of struggle and might jeopardize odds of graduation.
"It happens to be a time in school when students tend to disengage around math and sciences," said Stacy Carlson, vice president and program director for Helios in Florida. "If you can affect the effectiveness of teachers in the classroom, you can improve student achievement."
Middle schoolers experience new campus settings and higher-level work while their bodies and brains are changing. Around this time, studies show, they decide whether they will go to college, start to pick interests and identify what they want to do when they grow up.
"They're experiencing a lot of personal changes that come to their pre-adulthood persons," said Gladis Kersaint, math professor and associate dean for research at USF's College of Education. "They're also dealing with other aspects of their life, the peer pressure, more recently the bullying. It's a really unique age group. That's a key time when students begin to make choices."
What if a student wants to be, say, a creative writer? Why would STEM matter so much?
Different people have different interpretations of the field and its applications.
The acronym stands for science, technology, engineering and math — skills that proponents argue can translate across all fields. The National Science Foundation gives STEM a broader definition, including chemistry, computer science, engineering, geosciences, life sciences, materials research, math, physics and astronomy, psychology, social sciences and teaching STEM.
Organizations from the National Science Foundation to NASA to the Boy Scouts of America have launched STEM programs. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have preached the merits of STEM. In the world of immigration reform, some politicians have advocated easing green card access to immigrants skilled in STEM.
Pinellas County school leaders have emphasized budgeting for STEM labs and clubs. And last year, the state Legislature split $15 million among the top four universities with success tied to STEM — Florida International University, the University of Central Florida, the University of West Florida and the University of Florida.
Helios, a nonprofit in Florida and Arizona, has invested in STEM before, including $840,000 in 2011 for USF to launch a development program designed to help established math and science middle school teachers.
"It's a growing issue around developing high-quality teachers in the STEM field," Carlson said. "From a sustainability perspective, creating a pipeline of teachers that will go on to impact tens of thousands of students is a great investment for Helios."
USF's College of Education will lead the new program with help from the colleges of Engineering and Arts and Sciences. USF professors are working this summer to get the program off the ground and tailor the courses, approach and philosophy.
In the fall, the first group of 40 teachers will start to move through the program, which USF plans to continue indefinitely.
The future teachers will learn math and science skills, then transition into Hillsborough middle schools to work kind of like new doctors in residency, a more intensive track than a traditional internship. They'll co-teach and spend a full year with students, seeing development from start to finish, learning what works and what doesn't.
Being involved is essential for new teachers, program leaders said, at a time when technology is changing so fast.
"In middle school, we can begin to talk to them about careers and opportunities for those careers," she said. "We are preparing them for technology we have not yet seen."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3394.