Problem-solving is key to Belle Isle’s STEM education curriculum
By Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2015, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
I’m passionate about STEM education — that’s science, technology, engineering and math — for a very practical reason.
I want Oklahoma to be home to more advanced technology companies that produce new, high-paying jobs and wealth for the state. That requires a technical workforce trained, ready and interested in jobs that are in high demand in an innovation-driven economy.
The top 25 best STEM jobs in 2015 as ranked by U.S. News are IT-heavy, but along with those IT jobs are jobs in accounting, psychology, cost estimating, construction and auto mechanics.
So there’s plenty diverse opportunity in STEM-related jobs, which brings me to one of the best ways to engage students early with STEM and make it stick — middle-school science and engineering fairs.
If you’re like me, you might remember science fairs as check-the-box assignments, where kids took a cookie-cutter recipe out of a science book, completed an experiment, made a poster and stood it up in the school cafeteria in a halfhearted nod at something scientific.
A different approach
These days, in schools all over Oklahoma, great teachers are taking a different approach. One wonderful example is Belle Isle Enterprise Middle School. Belle Isle, which is in the Oklahoma City public school system, held its annual Engineering Fair last week.
It’s a two-day event. The entire school of about 450 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders participated.
“We wanted to add more engineering to the student experience,” science teacher Dan Covey said. “Real science is thinking through problems, making predictions based on a proposed solution and working it out. We decided to amp it up.”
The Engineering Fair is a school-level competition built around Oklahoma’s regional science and engineering fair events, in which Belle Isle winners compete.
Challenges include building a ping pong ball launcher from a mousetrap, a rubber band car that can carry a one pound box of baking soda, or a two-foot bridge out of toothpicks.
“For the bridges, we use buckets to pile on weights,” Covey said. “The bridges get broken every time. Students love watching this event. One of our students eventually built a bridge that held 400 pounds. She took that same bridge to regionals, loaded it a second time and still won. Last year, her little sister improved the design and beat her record at regionals as a seventh grader competing against high school kids.”
Not every STEM-related job requires a PhD in physics. Not every STEM job is in a lab. Not every STEM job requires a four-year university degree.
But every STEM job does require problem-solving skills. If a Belle Isle middle school student can build a bridge out of toothpicks that supports 400 pounds, imagine what she might be able to do with motivation, education and steel.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.