CHARLESTON (AP) —
Katie DeLuca looked down at her hands.
She was holding a black board, speckled with pegs and wires, trying to make it work.
To do that — to get a small red light in the corner of the board to turn on — she’d have to do some soldering and fiddle with some wires. She’d also have to know something about electrical engineering — a subject that is rife with math and science skills.
“I like math because I’m a huge nerd,” said DeLuca, a 16-year-old from Beckley. “But it’s nice to know that I can make something with it. Like I made this, I’m actually proud of myself.”
DeLuca was in the middle of a summer camp at the West Virginia University Institute of Technology in Montgomery that was devoted entirely to STEM subjects.
STEM — that’s science, technology, engineering and math — has been garnering a lot of attention in the education community and the political sphere, where public officials are beginning to wring their hands about the lack of professionals in those fields to meet the country’s 21st-century needs.
President Barack Obama called for a resurgence of STEM teaching as far back as his 2011 State of the Union address. In his State of the State address this year, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin noted the need for more qualified science and math teachers in public schools.
Indeed, a recent study from the American Institutes for Research and Change the Equation, a STEM advocacy group, found that in West Virginia only 58 percent of eighth-graders have a science teacher who took three or more advanced science courses in college. That’s compared to 62 percent nationally.
“West Virginia needs to ensure that schools and students have opportunities to meet a higher bar,” the report’s authors wrote.
The same report found that in West Virginia, STEM skills are still in demand, despite the economic downturn: there are 3.1 jobs in STEM fields for every one unemployed person here, compared to one unemployed person for every one job in another field.
Ideas like that have spawned a slew of initiatives across the nation and state to foster more interest in STEM subjects among kids. A new partnership between West Virginia University and the state Higher Education Policy Commission, for example, will try to excite K-12 students about STEM subjects with social media and hands-on experiences, and then usher them into college to study those subjects.
And then there are places like Camp Stem at WVU Tech, which tries to get children interested in STEM subjects at a young age, hoping the excitement in the subject will be enough to influence their field of study later in life.
(Evidence may support this idea: a 2011 study from the University of Virginia, for example, found that students’ interest and confidence in science and math influence their likelihood of pursuing careers in that field in college more than their achievement levels in those subjects.)
“I’m really good at it,” DeLuca said of her science and math skills.
And coming into Camp STEM, she wanted to figure out what specific field she was the best in, so she enrolled in this electrical engineering class, a subject she had no experience in, in addition to the chemistry class she knew she would like.
“This is the one that surprised me the most,” she said. “I never thought I would be good at it but I am, and now yeah, I could see myself doing it maybe.”
“It’s really good for them to figure it out now, instead of wandering around their first few years of college trying to decide what they want to do,” said Stephen Goodman, chairman and professor in computer and electrical engineering at Tech.
“It’s beyond just teaching them about technology, it’s raising their interest in these things.”
At Camp STEM, students from across the state and country learn how to solder wires for electric projects and design and build boats out of concrete. They make metal detectors and take apart household items to see how they work. They do chemistry and computer programming.
And it all happens on a college campus, every summer for the eight years, so students get an idea of what it could be like to do this in a college setting.
Anecdotally at least, Camp STEM is working on that count. Officials say 90 percent of their graduates go on to study STEM careers in college.
“Nationally there’s this big push for STEM and you can see why,” Goodman said. “If we look at some of the future problems that we as a society are going to have to solve - climate change and the environment and things like that - we need good problem solvers.
“And the more highly educated our people are the more likely it is they’ll be able to solve complicated problems.”
Shay Maunz writes for the Charleston Daily Mail.