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Why K-12 should leverage higher ed for STEM instruction

Training students for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills has become an imperative for schools as the need for workers in related fields has rises. But actually making the new programs work can be tricky. The endeavor can seem daunting amid the many competing priorities, it can be hard to find teachers who are ready to teach STEM subjects and, as always, money can be hard to come by.

The federal GEAR UP program, which was established over a decade to ago, is intended to help schools resolve some of those issues. The program provides schools, districts, and their partners with funding to help students from low-income or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds gain access to post-secondary education through early intervention. It’s not a cure-all, but for some districts, the funds have helped pay for services that filled a gaping need. 

To hear Utah State University education professor James Dorward tell it, that’s what’s happening in Utah right now. The university recently received $16.4 million in federal funds, plus $16.4 million in matching funds from state and local partners, to establish a GEAR UP program in 11 Utah schools. Dorward is overseeing the program’s rollout.

Beginning in seventh grade, students in those schools will receive academic counseling, mentorship, job site visits, and other opportunities intended to help them understand the opportunities available after graduation and get where they want to go.

“We just saw a big need in the state and filled it,” said Dorward. The funds are only available to schools where more than 50% of students qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program — and according to Dorward, roughly 300 of the state’s schools qualify. Fewer, of course, serve middle school students, which are the target audience for the funds, with 11 schools currently participating. 

Dorward says the response from the participating schools has been enthusiastic and that the funds have allowed the districts to build out curriculum they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. For example, students and engineering teachers recently got the chance to design green cars and race them on the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats.

Making the program work required a few key components. Step one was a university that placed a high premium on education at the K-12 level, even outside the College of Education.

“I think that the College of Education is respected to a greater extent here than in other places,” Dorward said. Elsewhere, “education is kind of an afterthought. Here, they kind of go hand in hand.” 

Many of the most committed education advocates are in the STEM departments, which has eased the collaboration with K-12. According to Dorward, “there aren’t many engineering projects that aren’t being undertaken without thinking of education.” That’s been furthered by federal science research funding that required outreach and education efforts, as well.

Dorward said that taking a collaborative approach has also been key. “A shared objective is a large part of it. When you get a group of people together who can agree, you can get a lot done,” he said. He and other local GEAR UP leaders have been welcoming to any and all partners. As a result, the group now includes local chambers of commerce as well as school districts, municipalities, and more.

And the program can also be a way to strengthen ties between higher ed and K-12. Elsewhere, education schools have come under fire for failing to adequately prepare students for the teaching profession. Involvement in the GEAR UP program has helped K-12 districts access the professional knowledge of the university’s faculty, and teachers and administrators have undergone trainings with the university focused on STEM education — professional development that might not have been available otherwise.

Of course, some of the benefits have been financial, as well, helping the cash-strapped K-12 system. And the university is helping to make the most of it.

In many rural districts, the complexity of the grant process can be a hurdle that prevents them from even applying. But the second person on the Utah State GEAR UP project is a financial officer who has helped coach districts on the financial ins and outs of the federal grant process. Even once the GEAR UP funds run out, the districts will be able to use that knowledge for future grants.

Dorward’s final tip? Leverage the programs that already exist. “There a lot of groups that are trying to better the conditions for the people in the sate and the K-12 students,” he said. Take advantage of those. Don’t build it all from scratch.


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Top Image Credit: Tai Gray/Flickr