Studying STEM — math, science and more — in Hillsborough Schools

Dr. Joseph Zendegui assists students Chris Waller, left, and James Valentine, both 15, with their presentation on DNA and RNA structuring during class at Middleton High School. 
Dr. Joseph Zendegui assists students Chris Waller, left, and James Valentine, both 15, with their presentation on DNA and RNA structuring during class at Middleton High School. 
Published March 17, 2012

First she fell in love with math and science as a fifth-grader at Mintz Elementary. Then, robotics at McLane Middle School fueled her passion.

Everything Jeanelle Baldwin learned at those two Brandon schools inspired her to attend a new biomedical/biotechnical track at Middleton High School in Tampa.

Today, the 14-year-old is well on her way to studying STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — in college and setting her sights on a life in medicine.

It's exactly what Hillsborough educators want to see.

"We're building a pipeline,'' said Larry Plank, the Hillsborough County School District's director of K-12 STEM Education.

More and more, state and national leaders are looking to elementary and secondary schools to start training a new generation of workers who will help America remain globally competitive.

Although only 5 percent of all U.S. jobs and 4 percent in Florida will be STEM-related by 2018, those are the jobs that spur innovation, economic growth and productivity, according to a recent report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and Workforce.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott made STEM education among his legislative priorities, noting the state will need 120,000 workers in STEM-related fields in the next six years. And the fear of falling behind prompted President Barack Obama this year to call for a million new STEM graduates.

"When students excel in math and science, they help America compete for the jobs and industries of the future," the president said in a February news release.

National and state leaders have committed considerable resources toward the cause, promising financial incentives for states with more STEM graduates — and for good reason.

STEM education is expensive, requiring schools to investment heavily in equipment and teacher training.

"Science changes all the time,'' said Plank, whose job requires him to seek grants and other funding to augment the district's budget. "We're always trying to keep up with technology.''

This school year, Hillsborough received $835,740 for STEM education — the bulk of it from Obama's Race to the Top effort that rewards states for dramatically improving educational outcomes.

Other organizations that have contributed to Hillsborough's STEM effort include the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Helios Foundation and the Hillsborough Education Foundation.

In Hillsborough, there has always been a push for STEM, Plank said. "People have always known math and science are important.''

• • •

Middleton, home of the 2012 state champion robotics team, has become one of Hillsborough's star STEM schools, where students study computer game design, engineering, or genetics and DNA research.

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The programs have cost the district roughly $330,000 during the past six years, Plank said.

To launch Middleton's biomedical/biotechnical program last fall the district spent about $50,000 on equipment alone. That included everything from laptops to hand-held devices to help students collect and analyze scientific data.

Another $5,000 went toward a new, more STEM-focused curriculum that offers a more hands-on, project-based approach. Middleton also sent its lone biomedical/biotechnical teacher to Maryland for two weeks to receive training and certification in the new curriculum.

Recruiting people who have spent time in the STEM world and want to share their knowledge is key to a successful STEM program, said Kathy Frericks, Middleton's lead teacher for magnet programs.

The challenge: finding someone who can be a good teacher, and is also willing to give up the big salary in the private sector, Frericks said.

But if they do "it really makes a huge difference,'' she said.

• • •

Joe Zendegui, a first-year educator with more than 30 years of experience in academic research and biotechnology, knew teaching was his next calling.

He admits he took a hit financially, but high school kids were at the "perfect age'' to absorb the technical information Zendegui longed to share.

"They're learning things now I wasn't learning until graduate school,'' said Zendegui, 61, a Tampa native who moved back with his wife a few years ago.

During a recent biomedical lab class at Middleton, Zendegui guided 25 students — mostly freshman — through an experiment to determine how much energy certain foods contain.

Girls and boys donned aprons and goggles as they powered up laptops and hand-held devices to take measurements from a potato chip, marshmallow, Cheerio and Cheeto.

They also checked their hair in the glass doors of nearby cabinets, snapped the elastic bands on their lab partner's bulky eyewear and hugged each other — a lot.

They're kids, after all, but they seemed to appreciate being in such a sophisticated program with a teacher like Zendegui.

"Dr. Z is unique,'' Jeanelle said. "He can provide background information and tell you, 'I've done that, this is how it works.' ''

Davion Myles, 15, liked the idea of a real "doctor'' teaching the class. Zendegui has a doctorate degree in biomedical science from USF.

"He's not just teaching out of a book,'' said Davion, who is considering a career in medicine, too. "He's sharing his experiences.''

• • •

To get more folks like Zendegui in the classroom, Obama has earmarked $80 million to train more than 100,000 STEM teachers during the next 10 years, citing a report released last month by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Among the findings, fewer than 40 percent of college students who plan to major in a STEM field actually get a STEM degree.

But if colleges and universities increased their retention rate from 40 to 50 percent, that would provide three-fourths of the 1 million STEM graduates needed, the report said.

And they could raise the rate significantly by improving teaching practices, the council concluded.

But many postsecondary schools argue the high school graduates coming to them are not fully prepared for the rigors of a STEM education, spurring some additional support.

The University of South Florida recently received a $430,000 grant from the Helios Foundation, an organization focused on education issues in Arizona and Florida, for a new teacher education program for STEM.

The program is for middle school teachers of math and science.

An assistant professor at the university also received nearly $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation to look at what makes high school students decide to pursue a STEM degree or go on to some other field.

Marissa Mendez, a sophomore, discovered she likes science and loves biology thanks to Zendegui's class. But she doesn't think she will work in those fields. Her passion is music and her plan after high school is to study piano and guitar, Mendez said.

Still, the 16-year-old sees STEM classes as a building block for the future, one that every student should acquire.

"STEM is a very good program for kids to finally figure out who they are and what they want to do with the rest of their lives,'' she said.

Zendegui also thinks that all the effort and money is still worth it even if students aren't going to necessarily end up working in a STEM-related field.

"STEM teaches kids to think,'' he said. "To me that's the most import skill they can leave high school with — the ability to think critically and rationally.''