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Arkansas’s schools are preparing today’s students for a world grounded in STEM

By Angela E. Thomas 

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It may seem that the term “STEM” has been a part of our vocabulary for, well, forever. However, the acronym—which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics—is actually a fairly new term. It was introduced by administrators at the U.S. National Science Foundation in 2001. 

The U.S. Department of Education has stressed the need for increased STEM education: “If we want a nation where our future leaders, neighbors and workers have the ability to understand and solve some of the complex challenges of today and tomorrow, and to meet the demands of the dynamic and evolving workforce, building students’ skills, content knowledge and fluency in STEM fields is essential.”*

Arkansas schools have accepted the charge, and while the state’s Department of Education does not have an official STEM school designation, STEM education is a part of its long-term strategic goals. Many of the state’s schools, according to Kimberly Mundell, director of communications for the Department of Education, have been recognized by third-party accreditation systems and the material they’re teaching is vital. 

“Arkansas schools that have a STEM emphasis are focused on developing skills in students that are relevant to today’s and tomorrow’s job market. They are developing pathways that support the traditional four-year college route, but are also providing students who do not want to go to college with training that can lead to high-paying jobs right out of high school. They are helping their students become productive and marketable, not just helping them graduate.”

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One such school is Forest Heights STEM Academy. 

“Our students are exposed to engineering, bio-medical and computer science, based on their skill level. For instance, our kindergarteners learn how to code and will soon be able to talk about algorithms,” said Amber Harbin, STEM coordinator at the school. “And our middle-school students take two engineering classes each year.”

Each of the STEM areas is taught, and students are encouraged to address real-world, global issues such as access to clean water. By the time they enter eighth grade, they’ll have studied and formulated solutions for nine world problems. 

“We want them to be globally aware, so they take on challenges in science and environmental issues, social justice issues and more. They research problems in the community, create solutions, and partner with a community organization to address the issue they choose.” 

Science teachers work with students on the environmental issues, engineering and social studies teachers work their students to address social justice issues, and engineering and math teachers work with student on infrastructure issues. 

“This exposes them to different ideas to, hopefully, ignite their passions to become problem-finders and problem-solvers,” Harbin said. 

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LISA Academy’s curriculum has been STEM-based since its founding in 2004. The charter school has locations in Central Arkansas, and this year expanded into the northwest region with a location in Springdale. 

“We incorporate STEM exploration at each level,” said Luanne Baroni, assistant superintendent and director of communications. “One way we do this is through Project Lead the Way, a nationally recognized program. Our students study coding and robotics as early as the elementary level, then advance into middle and high school studying engineering as well.” 

STEM study is further emphasized through the school’s various competitive clubs such as Math Counts, Science Olympiad, Science Quiz Bowl and Math Kangaroo. LISA Academy students create science fair projects each year and compete locally, regionally and at the state level. 

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Five years ago, the school organized The Arkansas STEM Festival. Now in its fifth year, the festival is hosted by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in the spring and welcomes 2,000 students from across the state to present their hands-on, interactive projects. 

“The world needs students who are prepared in science, technology, engineering and math so they may pursue these areas in college and in the workforce. We want to ensure that our graduates are prepared for these areas when they leave,” Baroni added. 

The charter school graduated its first class in 2009 and has graduates who’ve been admitted to Ivy League schools, another who's gone on to United States Military Academy West Point, and still others who’ve become entrepreneurs and business owners. 

The Arkansas Department of Education’s Division of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) continues to focus on STEM education by identifying quality talent and building student-focused initiatives around the traditional STEM areas of science and mathematics. 

AR Math QuEST, a new state mathematics initiative, “helps students develop positive identities as doers of mathematics.” They’ve also developed ARKidsCanCode, a program sponsored by the department and Gov. Asa Hutchinson to encourage the pursuit of computer science.

Forest Heights STEM Academy and LISA Academy along with eSTEM Public Charters Schools are just a few of the schools working to ensure Arkansas students are prepared for the future. 

“We recognize that STEM occupations, and other careers that require skill and knowledge provided by STEM education, are and will continue to be major contributors to economic growth,” Kimberly Mundell said. “Our state and students must be prepared for the technological displacement of labor that is facing their generation.” 

The schools’ and department’s efforts magnify the U.S. Department of Education’s assertion that “we must also make sure that, no matter where children live, they have access to quality learning environments. A child's ZIP code should not determine their STEM fluency.”

*from ed.gov/stem