published Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Tennessee's STEM Fellows program seeks to bridge business, education

Keri Randolph, STEM Innovation Hub director of learning, speaks to graduating teachers from the STEM Fellows program at Chattanooga State Community College on Thursday.
Keri Randolph, STEM Innovation Hub director of learning, speaks to graduating teachers from the STEM Fellows program at Chattanooga State Community College on Thursday.
Photo by Erin O. Smith.

GET INVOLVED

For more information on the STEM Fellows program, visit setennesseestem.org or call 423-668- 2426.

Everyone loves to complain about the state of public education. But not everyone is willing to pitch in and do something about it.

The region's STEM work -- short for science, technology, engineering and math -- is one effort trying to bridge that divide. The Southeast Tennessee STEM Initiative is seeking businesses with a desire to improve the quality of public education, and thus the quality of the workforce. Part of its one-year STEM Teaching Fellows program pairs businesses and area teachers together to learn from each other.

The STEM work here was kickstarted by the 2012 opening of STEM School Chattanooga, a Hamilton County public school that opened with support from businesses and nonprofits on the campus of Chattanooga State Community College. But officials are working to spread STEM across Southeast Tennessee through the STEM Innovation Hub.

Aside from working to better educate students in STEM subjects, the regional effort has worked to bring businesses and education together, so that business expectations for the workforce are more aligned with the public schools' output of graduates.

"Until you engage in helping teachers understand the workforce that you need, you're not informing the process and helping to make it better," said Keri Randolph, director of learning for the STEM hub. "We feel like this is a way for businesses to engage in a meaningful way."

And the commitment can be minimal. Some businesses can pitch in with just a one-day job shadow to help teachers see what kinds of skills their students are going to need in the future.

"I mean it's literally work I do every day," said Jason Kos, a systems manager at Unum Group in Chattanooga. "The chores, the tasks I do every day. My team was happy to have them. Everybody gets a kick of interacting with somebody outside the organization and engaging in a little show-and-tell."

Kos, who is responsible for maintaining some 4,500 employee laptops, phones and tablets at Unum, played host to a middle school science teacher. It was a jam-packed eight-hour day. The teacher learned about Unum's technology infrastructure and applications, but Kos said he learned a lot, too -- specifically, how difficult it is for schools to keep up with the latest technology.

"Coming from a business perspective and him coming from an education perspective, we kind of met in the middle on the technology perspective," he said. "I thought it was really worthwhile."

And teachers, do, too. At a recent graduation ceremony for 34 teachers who completed the 2013-14 STEM Teaching Fellows program, several teachers specifically mentioned the value of learning directly from business professionals.

"It was an awesome opportunity," said Blount County science teacher Kendal Terry. "And it is one that really did change what I thought STEM was -- to see these things that take place in STEM classes and in STEM settings in the real world."

Terry shadowed an engineer at Maryville's Standard Aero, which assembles, repairs and tests aircraft parts. While the day was full of meetings and troubleshooting, one lesson stands out. An engineer was troubleshooting a problem with a machinist on the floor. To show how he wrote a new program for a machine, he handed Terry a stack of papers full of complicated math formulas. But the engineer said to ignore the first first pages of work. It was all wrong. Only on the fifth page did he come to the right answer.

Terry realized the importance of failure. It happens in the real world and should happen in schools, too.

"They're not always going to get a gold star. They're not always going to get a trophy. They're not always going to get an A," he said. "They're going to be handled a problem and they're going to have to come up with a solution."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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