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STEAMing Ahead: Upstate School Districts Educate Future Workforce

June 9, 2017
What is STEAM – and Why?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) occupations will grow by 18.7% between 2010 and 2020, a significantly higher clip than jobs in other sectors. 
To prepare for this growth, the Upstate of South Carolina and its public education systems are incorporating more STEM and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) programming in their classrooms from age four through grade 12.
“STEAM is an integral focus for our educators,” says Chris Burras, STEAM academic specialist for Greenville County Schools. “As we strive to help our students prepare for their roles in an increasingly global society, it is imperative that we build strong foundations in science, technology, engineering, the arts and math. It is equally imperative that we offer opportunities for students to work collaboratively, engage in critical thinking and problem solving.”
How the Upstate Prepares Students with STEAM
fisher-middle.jpgA. J. Whittenberg (AJW) Academy of Engineering is the state’s first public elementary school with a school-wide engineering program. Seven years ago, the school broke new ground for STEAM education in the Upstate when its opened its doors in downtown Greenville. AJW students work in groups of three or four with a problem-based approach that incorporates multiple subject areas into each assignment. Whether it is designing a pulley for a school performance of Peter Pan or studying both the biology of bees and the geography of crops they pollinate, Greenville County’s youngest learners are challenged in several STEAM facets at once.  
“Parents send their children to A. J. Whittenberg not to train them for future engineering careers,” says Winsy Pittinos, mother of a rising second-grader, “but to expose them to and inform them about all the options that exist for their futures. Fostering an understanding of problem-solving and a love for learning has tremendous value, whatever our children grow up to be.”
Just miles away, Greenville’s Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School is the district’s first STEAM-focused middle school. The campus was designed specifically to support a project-based learning curriculum; one way it does so is through its faculty-in-residence partnership with nearby Clemson University’s College of Education, which offers reciprocal learning and research opportunities. The middle school’s cross-disciplinary curricula and STEAM learning labs make its campus state-of-the art and its students better prepared for higher levels of education in these fields. 
Starting with K4, as Greenville County does, and teaching STEAM concepts in context creates a deeper foundation of knowledge students can build upon over their school years. As they approach middle and high school, information and hands-on experience combine to create prepared, skilled graduates ready for a changing economy and a world of new opportunities.
Next-Generation Workers Training Now
As they expand their STEAM offerings on campus, Upstate school districts are also collaborating with community partners to round out their students’ educations beyond the classroom. Oconee County’s Nurturing Oconee’s Workers (NOW) initiative, for example, began in 2016 to ensure its graduates enter the workforce ready and marketable to employers. NOW participants meet once each month to learn more about advanced employment skills from networking to machinery operation. 
“The NOW Program is unique to Oconee County and was created as a collaboration between the school district and the Oconee Economic Alliance,” says Richard Blackwell, executive director of the Oconee Economic Alliance. “Local industries need well-prepared employees, and Oconee County graduates need access to good employment opportunities. This program is a win-win for all parties involved.”
NOW is not the only forward-thinking program preparing the Upstate’s next generation of workers. Oconee County’s Mechatronics program graduated its first five students last month, all of whom took tuition-free dual courses to receive a Technical Operators Certification, as well as several hours towards an associate degree in mechatronics, alongside their high school diplomas.
“Our goal as a district is to partner with families to develop responsible, productive citizens,” said Michael Thorsland, superintendent of the School District of Oconee County. To that end, the district also offers Girls in Engineering and Manufacturing (GEM) at its Hamilton Career Center; GEM allows rising ninth and tenth grade girls to learn through hands-on experiences with soldering, laser engraving, 3-D printing, CNC machining and more.
With construction underway of the Oconee center for Workforce Development at the Oconee Industry & Technology Park, it’s likely the connection between youth education and industry opportunities will deepen. Once completed, the center will offer youth apprenticeships, co-ops, and internships on a campus where students can envision bright futures at the manufacturing companies nearby.
Celebrating Technical Achievements
Pickens County School District also has an eye on preparing its students for technology jobs of tomorrow, most notably through its Scholar Technician® program. Working with the local business community to make sure their respective educational goals and job needs align, PCSD created the Scholar Technician® initiative to recognize and support students who excel beyond the classroom and in the career center’s technology labs. 
“Traditionally, society celebrates the scholar athlete, who has success both on the field and in the classroom. Here in Pickens County, however, we also want to recognize students who have academic achievements as well as technical gifts. This program sends a message to our students and our businesses that we value our district is building a workforce for companies that come here; it readies our students for quality jobs and develops skilled workforce for the businesses around us,” says John Eby, public information specialist for Pickens County School District. 
Pickens’ 2017 Scholar Technician®, Eddy Juarez, received a $500 career starter stipend as part of the district’s recognition for his achievements. Before graduating, Juarez trained in Germany for two weeks and accepted a full-time position with railroad couplings manufacturer era contact, a Germany-based manufacturer of electrical railway couplings whose North American headquarters are in Easley. 
This scholar technician’s story reads as a road map for the Upstate’s current STEAM students: Find what you love, work hard at it and arrive prepared for the high-quality jobs of tomorrow.  
As STEM jobs multiply, STEAM education initiatives expand and Upstate students take advantage of this convergence, the economic future of South Carolina’s Upstate and the businesses that call it home is looking bright. 
TOPICS: Education, Workforce Development