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Posted: December 12, 2016 11:15 a.m.

STEM Institute receives state certification

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On Wednesday, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Institute at Newton County College and Career Academy (NCCA) became the first college and career academy in Georgia to be awarded “STEM Certification” by the Georgia Department of Education (DOE). It is the 41st school and the 10th high school to receive this distinction.

According to Tim Schmitt, director of career technical and agricultural education for the NCSS, when the decision was shared with the STEM Institute’s students, there were cheers, tears and hugs.

“This means a lot to the students,” Schmitt said. “They own the programs.”

The students had a big role in convincing the official certification team on Wednesday.

“The team was impressed with how articulate the students are and how obviously connected they are to all the work going on,” Schmitt said. “The STEM Institute students are engaged and excited. They sold it.”

The certification team’s visit and decision was the final hurdle in a process that the STEM Institute’s 156 students, teachers and administrators have been working through for several years.

The certification team was led by Gilda Lyon, STEM coordinator for the DOE, and included representatives from education, business, industry and the DOE. Such teams review a school’s application and supporting documents. They then visit the school to interview students, business partners, teachers and other stakeholders and make a final decision. The purpose is to verify whether or not a school under consideration for certification is substantially meeting the 19 criteria outlined in the DOE’s STEM Certification Continuum.

Given the certification team’s decision to certify, the STEM Institute is indeed meeting those criteria.

Unique features

Besides the students, Lyon and the team were impressed with two features of the STEM Institute that Lyon says are unique in Georgia.

First, the STEM Institute has a unique approach to solving a problem faced by all college and career academies.

“STEM education requires collaboration between teachers for the purpose of integrating their curricula,” Lyon said. “Among college and career academies, Newton has a unique way of doing that. They pulled all the math and science into the same building with technology and engineering.” That has allowed the needed collaboration among teachers. At other college and career academies math and science is taught at students’ base high school.

Second, Lyon and the team were impressed with the STEM Institute’s unique “flex day.” At the STEM Institute, one day each week is “flex day.” On that day, students work all day in teams with other students on projects of their own design or on projects suggested by teachers or pitched by local businesses or industries.

Scott Raines, STEM Project Leader, said flex day was based on a Google business model. Google allows employees to devote 20 percent of their time to creativity.

“Other schools offer opportunities and a framework for collaboration and project-based work, but the fact that NCCA provides that format for a full day every week is really something special,” Schmitt said.  

Georgia STEM certification

“STEM” refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The DOE defines STEM education “as an integrated curriculum (as opposed to science, technology, engineering and mathematics taught in isolation) that is driven by problem solving, discovery, exploratory project/problem-based learning and student-centered development of ideas and solutions. The saturation of technology in most fields means that all students – not just those who plan to pursue a STEM profession – will require a solid foundation in STEM to be productive members of the workforce.”

“Businesses and industries in Georgia told us their workforce is aging and retiring,” Lyon said. To help address the need for a new generation of skilled workers, the Department developed the Georgia STEM Certification program seven years ago. The idea was to encourage schools to offer STEM education. STEM Certification rewards schools that meet established criteria for content and for best teaching practices.

David Bernd, vice-president for Covington/Newton County economic development, underscored the need for a STEM educated workforce.

“Studies are indicating that greater than 75 percent of all jobs by 2020/2025 will require a STEM educational background,” he said. “The NCSS’s STEM initiatives will ensure we are providing our students, with the tools they require to be successful in their careers regardless of whether they go directly into the workforce or seek post-secondary education.”

A commitment to STEM

“The NCSS’s goal is to make sure as many students as possible are exposed to STEM subjects and careers,” Schmitt said. “At this point, we can confidently say that over half the students in Newton County are getting that exposure.  We expect that number to continue to grow and have set a target of at least 75 percent of NCSS students to receive STEM education or STEM programming by the year 2025.”

Schools within the NCSS are at various stages of ramping up STEM education. According to Schmitt, “Some are learning about STEM education, hosting discussions with their staff, trying some activities with small groups of students/teachers, and so on.” This group includes East Newton, Flint Hill, Live Oak, Oak Hill and South Salem elementary schools as well as Cousins and Veterans Memorial middle schools.

“Other schools are further along in their efforts, have taken steps to provide STEM experiences for most of their students, and have outlined a plan to continue to grow the program,” said Schmitt. This group includes Mansfield, Middle Ridge and Porterdale elementary schools as well as the Newton County Theme School at Ficquett.

Finally, there are two schools, Indian Creek Middle School and the STEM Institute, which have been working at it longer and are further along than other NCSS schools. “These two schools are making STEM an embedded part of their school or program’s culture,” Schmitt said. Indian Creek Middle School has a goal of achieving Georgia STEM Certification like the STEM Institute did on Wednesday.

“NCSS has made great strides in driving STEM education deep into our elementary schools, insuring educational cornerstones are set in granite, for all students,” Bernd said. “This initiative is becoming a game changer in trying to land multinational companies to our region, both for qualified workforce availability and for executives relocating their families to Newton County.”

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