Even though Barbra Pener teaches science and robotics, she likes to start the school year with a quick history lesson.
She points to a picture of the famous late 19th and early 20th-century scientist Marie Skłodowska-Curie that hangs on her classroom wall.
“Her husband Pierre is in the photo, and she’s holding the baby,” Pener said.
She then rattles off for her eighth-grade students Skłodowska-Curie’s list of accomplishments, including multiple Nobel Prizes and the discovery of two radioactive elements.
Pener doesn’t indicate who in the photo is responsible for the lofty achievements. She then asks her eighth-grade students at Nipher Middle School in Kirkwood to pick which person she’s talking about.
“And a majority of the kids, unless they had prior knowledge, pointed to her husband,” Pener said.
This is the kind of stereotype Pener wants to break down. And to pick up some extra training she joined more than 100 kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers from across Missouri and Illinois who will spend the next two weeks learning how they can better weave science and math education into their lesson plans.
The science, technology, engineering and mathematics Teacher Quality Initiative (STEM TQ) is entering its third year and has steadily attracted more and more teachers. This year, 106 teachers from Affton, East St. Louis, Ferguson-Florissant, Hazelwood, Pattonville, University City, and Kirkwood will get hands on training and take field trips to local companies to lean how they can better “STEM-itize” their lesson plans. The YMCA of St. Louis is also participating as an informal provider.
“We want them to be absolutely conscious of the classroom climate,” said Deborah Holmes, project manager and facilitator for STEM TQ. “We're talking about the consciousness of raising up and affirming our females, raising up and affirming our students of color, and really helping to eliminate the gap that we have so that our local and Missouri business do not have untapped talent.”
Nationally, the data show a wide gap in the percentage of minority students working toward a college degree in STEM-related fields. For instance, the latest numbers from the National Science Foundation show that African Americans accounted for 5.1 percent of all students working toward an engineering degree in 2011. That’s slightly down slightly from 2001, when African American students accounted for 6.7 percent of all students pursuing an engineering degree.
Women are also sorely underrepresented in many STEM fields. For example, only one in four computer professionals are women, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We look for resources where we can see women, people of color, so students can see possibilities for themselves,” Holmes said. “We also talk about windows, where all students get to see the diversity of talent; where they can work in groups and recognize the contributions each of them can make.”
The two-week program is followed up by three days of professional development and six after school sessions. The focus is hands-on learning. On Tuesday, for example, teachers took classes through the Adventures In Medicine and Science (AIMS) program at Saint Louis University that included learning how to dissect a pig heart. The training is hosted by Washington University, and a coalition of corporations called STEMpact is covering the costs, which runs around $3,000 a teacher.
“The companies came together and said, ‘we have the opportunity to leverage our philanthropic investment in the St. Louis region for the benefit of our K-8 teachers which will then benefit our workforce,’” Holmes said.
A report from the Brookings Institution found that filling STEM jobs in St. Louis can be a chore, with positions that come with middle-income wages often going unfilled for more than a month at a time. Some jobs requiring programming skills can stay open much longer, as local companies scour the workforce for potential employees with the right skill sets.
While the training is heavy on science and math, Holmes said there's plenty of room for the arts.
"We had a teacher last year who did a very interesting mathematics project with shapes, paterns and the repetition," Holmes said. "Students designed the equivalent of mosaics as a math unit."
National data show that only 26 percent of people in the workforce with STEM degrees are using that training in their current jobs. Holmes said the ability to connect the dots between different fields of study can pay dividends for students who pursue STEM related fields but end up doing something else with their careers.
“We think that STEM is an excellent foundation for wherever you end up,” Holmes said. “It’s got the engineering process, it’s got the technology; it’s got well-grounded competencies in science and math.”
As an African-American woman training what could be the next wave of STEM workers in the St. Louis region, Pener said she pushes her students in hopes that all of her students feel like they can unlock the door to career in science and technology. That, she said, starts early.
“I tell my female students, ‘no, I don’t want you to defer the dissections to the guys. I don’t want you to defer working with the tools to your male partners. I want you to jump in there, as well.’”
The program also seems to be moving the academic dial. Students who were in classes with STEM TQ trained teachers scored 10 points better in math and eight points better in science on Missouri Assessment Program tests as compared to students in classes with non-STEM TQ trained teachers.