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The Art of Workforce Development

By Dawn Marie Yankeelov

Editor’s Note: Part 2 of a two-part look at the incorporation of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) into education curricula and workforce training in Kentucky.

Louisville became home to the VEX Robotics World Championships in 2015 and attracted top teams from more than 1,000 local and regional VEX Robotics competitions. The 2016 championships are April 20-23 in Louisville.
Louisville became home to the VEX Robotics World Championships in 2015 and attracted top teams from more than 1,000 local and regional VEX Robotics competitions. The 2016 championships are April 20-23 in Louisville.

Kentucky employers increasingly are aligning with educators who understand workforce development trends and how economic development occurs. As a result, they are becoming champions of innovative learning strategies in the commonwealth’s most rural and economically challenged settings.

Rather than rote memorization and quizzes, career paths are being charted around hands-on undertakings: building robots and 3-D printers; planning a satellite payload; constructing a building, wiring a circuit board; designing and crafting skateboards.

This educational approach is known as STEAM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. The term STEM – sans art – is better known; some argue that art and creativity already are inherent elements of science-based disciplines. STEAM more overtly promotes creativity in school curricula, the thinking being that this will stimulate innovation as the STEM skills play out in the working world, to the benefit of us all.

This outreach also encompasses after-school programs, specialty internships, field trips, nonprofit and club-based maker spaces, in-classroom year-long projects, and field work for companies where mentoring is possible. STEAM concepts are gaining traction in diverse settings.

It’s woven into many of the Shaping Our Appalacian Region (SOAR) initiatives.

Many of the plans SOAR is pursuing, said Brad Thomas, associate manager of economic development for East Kentucky Power Cooperative, were born over an evening out in a bar discussing the re-creation of education approaches for today’s workforce needs.

It’s no secret that Appalachia represents some of the poorest counties in America today, Thomas said.

“Dollars, resources and expertise will be foundational in moving the needle in STEAM initiatives,” he said. “Companies like Toyota and Qk4 (engineering) in Louisville are already on board, but we’ve only gotten started.”

Kentucky legislators and other state government officials are getting actively engaged. In September 2015, educators from 22 Eastern Kentucky school districts joined U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and former Gov. Steve Beshear, co-chairs of SOAR, at Clay County High School to launch an initiative aimed at building a STEM-skilled workforce by creating new opportunities for teachers through National Board Certification. Project Lead The Way curriculum, which will be brought to schools in the SOAR region, is endorsed nationwide, Thomas said, as a premier approach to STEM education that will support new manufacturing, biomedical and technology careers.

It’s one of a number of programs from the workforce and education populations in Kentucky to take initial innovative steps to transform learning mechanisms.

Robotics for kids builds buzz

The real issues of achieving progress, according to Jason Morella, president of the REC (Robotics Education & Competition) Foundation, go to project scope, training the trainers and scaling, which are matters of persistence and effective rollout.

Meanwhile, Louisville in 2015 became the home of the VEX Robotics Worlds Championships. VEX is a leading provider of educational and competitive robotics products to schools, universities and robotics teams. With grants and other support from NASA, Jefferson County Public Schools will roll out the VEX Robotics program to educators and students at 30 schools each year, reaching all 135 of its schools by 2019. NASA is providing the robotics kits, teacher training workshops and technical assistance.

The 2016 VEX championships set for April 20-23 will feature top teams from over 1,000 VEX Robotics tournaments around the world. Kentucky has 237 teams through REC Foundation programs, up from 60 teams in 2012.

Robotics education has come to the state in many forms, which are referenced in acronyms. Kentucky has nine FRC teams. FRC is FIRST Robotics Competition, and FIRST robotics is For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. FIRST is a Manchester, N.H.-based nonprofit founded in 1989. Corporations such as Xerox help the Kentucky teams, for example, providing the Central Bluegrass Region High School team with a $7,500 check in the fall to support its activities

Tech partnership expands around STEAM

Jim Martin, president of Marwood Veneer in Jeffersonville, Ind., came into STEAM program development as a volunteer committee chair for TALK, the Technology Association of Louisville Kentucky.

“The Rad Science Skateboard Build project can bring all the facets of math, science, engineering and tool technology into the middle school and high school populations,” Martin said. “It’s great to see how the students light up when they see how it can be done. This keeps me interested in how we can find the funding through TALK to continue more of these types of programs.”

In partnership with the Louisville Free Public library under federal grant dollars, TALK will offer more RAD Science Skateboard Builds within the library system during spring break 2016. The tech council also is pursuing other foundation, philanthropist and corporate support to plan for new STEAM outreach for opportunity youth, cancer children and scouting badge programs in Kentucky and Indiana. Both Girl Scout and Boy Scout councils now have STEM-specific coordinators and maker spaces.

UofL’s Speed School engineering garage was home to the first Rad Science Skateboard Build in August 2015 during Louisville’s inaugural TechFest. Speed School has had an active summer after-school program for years to build STEM outreach and feed the engineering education pipeline.

This year it begins a partnership with Lexington-based Newton’s Attic, a non-profit also offering STEAM curriculum through Central Kentucky school districts, UK, Berea College, Carter G. Woodson Academy and the Christian Appalachian project.

Newton’s Attic pressing out into the state

Newton’s Attic, a non-profit operating since 1998, served over 1,300 students in its after-school programs and summer camps this year, primarily in Fayette and Woodford counties.

“Schools stopped doing project-based learning for a number of years, and now educators are coming back to its value,” said Bill Cloyd, a mechanical engineer and co-founder with his wife, Dawn. “New federal standards in science will drive more hands-on project-driven science.”

Newton facilities now include two buildings on five acres, courses such as bowmaking, and even girls-only Camp Katniss programs – derived from the popular “Hunger Games” movies. Transportation is always an issue for after-school programs, the Cloyds said, so field trip groups are more frequent outside the summer months.

TechTown Global eyes Kentucky

The UofL Foundation is exploring partnership with TechTown Global LLC, which launched in Chattanooga in June 2015, for a proposed on-campus TechTown Louisville. TechTown Chattanooga is a 23,000-s.f. technology and entrepreneurial learning center offering year-round afterschool programs and summer camps with a focus on underserved children 7 to 17.

Competitiveness in math 

(and science) adds up

Interest in better math and science curricula escalated in Kentucky under the 2008-09 National Math and Science Initiative competition. Today, AdvanceKentucky is a statewide math-science initiative dedicated to helping Kentucky’s students reach new heights in rigorous academic achievement. It encourages advanced placement (AP) coursework allowing for college credit in high school.

Begun in 2007, AdvanceKentucky is designed to accelerate students through advanced placement in math, science and, for communication skills, AP English. (Computer science is being added to the AP curriculum this year, with coursework including data analytics, how the Internet works and computer programming languages.) It is a partnership among Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., the Kentucky Department of Education and the National Math and Science Initiative with several sponsors, like Exxon Mobil. Joanne Lang is executive director and has raised a $13 million match required over five years for an initial $13 million federal grant.

“We replicated the Texas model focused on minorities and low-income students,” Lang said. “This was 180 degrees different from 30 years ago when accelerated learning was for the talented kids only.”

After a national competition, AdvanceKentucky was one of six programs NMSI initially selected to scale up. Statewide results of the program thus far find students are going to school at a higher rate, have higher GPAs, persist into higher education, and graduate from college at higher rates.

“We want that talent to stay in our state,” Lang said, noting that some 90,000 students have been served under the initiative in Kentucky. (However, Lang added, there is some duplication in that number as a student can earn more than one qualifying AP score.)

It is a voluntary participation initiative in 101 public high schools in the state – a third of which are in the Appalachia region, where the need is greatest.

AdvanceKentucky also participates in promoting National Computer Science Education Week in December and helped orchestrate more than 500 hours of code events in classrooms across the state.

STEAM curricula a Kentucky profit-maker

The state is beginning to see for-profit companies join the STEAM bandwagon by designing specialty kits and curriculum, with several headquartered here in Kentucky. Weston Hagan, lab director of Louisville-based Durham Labs, talks excitedly about working with a middle school math teacher to complete a project using his company’s Let’s Start Coding circuit boards and related parts.

Another Louisville company, Whitebox Learning, is exporting curriculum nationwide to educators looking for the next rung on the ladder. It has a complete standards-based STEM learning system for engineering, science and technology education classrooms for grades six to 12.

Never too young for STEAM

Some companies are investing at the child-care center level in true STEAM curriculum, including the Lexmark Center for Children, managed through Bright Horizons. Lexington-based Lexmark International Inc. is a global corporation that creates printing and imaging products, enterprise software, and related hardware solutions. With more than 1,500 engineers at its research and development center, the facility is only for its employees who need childcare.  Most of those attending are infant age through pre-school, and after-school up to the fifth-grade level.

“We believe it gives the preschoolers an advantage, making them school-ready when they are jumping to kindergarten,” said Amanda Stamper, a company public relations specialist. ν