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Classes Aim to Spark Interest in Science, Technology

By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 30, 2011 – From robotics engineering to gaming technology, Defense Department school officials are hoping their new, cutting-edge courses will spark a lifelong passion for science and technology in their students.

Under a new science, technology, engineering and math initiative, Department of Defense Education Activity officials will roll out four innovative classes in a limited number of DOD high schools in the fall, with plans for a wider-scale launch to follow if the program proves successful.

The courses are robotics engineering, biotechnology engineering, gaming technology and green technology engineering.

“We want to give our kids the best opportunities possible when they leave our organization,” said Mark Bignell, DODEA’s chief of arts information and careers branch. “At least to say, ‘I have the background and I have the desire to go into one of these fields of study that is of national importance.’”

Bignell said he’s excited to see this initiative come to fruition after a nearly two-year effort. In 2009, a task group brought together teachers, administrators and counselors from throughout DODEA to revitalize 60 courses. They determined that to make students more competitive in this job market, officials needed to fill a large gap.

“This was the entire STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] collection,” he said.

Since that time, STEM education has gained traction in the media through high-profile efforts such as the president’s “Race to the Top” initiative, Bignell noted. Officials also have come forward and called the lack of potential candidates a national emergency. Yet, the fastest growing occupations through 2018 are engineering and computer and technology professions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We need to put more kids in STEM fields,” Bignell said. “We’re not keeping up with engineers and scientists, as they are in other competitive countries.”

One of the main goals of DODEA’s STEM initiative is to give underserved populations and females more opportunities to get involved in these types of courses, Bignell said, noting this mirrors a national goal.

“You have to start very early,” he said. “Data show that if you haven’t reached a girl in the 6th grade in science, you’ve lost her; she’s not going to have the interest.”

Bignell said DODEA’s STEM initiative will be a truly collaborative effort, causing teachers to reach beyond classroom walls to draw from expert knowledge within the military community.

“The whole philosophy behind a proper STEM education is an integrated approach,” he said. “We have a military community with members who are experts in every one of these fields on practically every one of our bases.”

Teachers also will draw on one another’s knowledge to help, he noted. For example, a biotechnology engineering teacher in Quantico, Va., and a teacher in Vicenza, Italy, already have established a working relationship through avenues such as email and an electronic blackboard, he said. The Quantico-based teacher has a background in professional technical studies, but is lacking the biology knowledge that the Vicenza-based teacher can provide.

“We’re expecting teachers to integrate and do some true team teaching -– even if it’s across the ocean,” Bignell said.

“This is very forward-thinking methodology,” he added. “We’re really trying to break down walls and get people to understand that communities are the ones that are going to make this program successful, and it can’t be done when confined to classroom alone.”

Courses also will remain as flexible as possible to enable teachers to tackle topics that may not be within their immediate realm, Bignell said, citing the biotechnology course as an example. The course can be taught by a math, biology, career technical or science teacher, he explained.

Course content also remains flexible, he noted. For example, rather than dictate the games to create, gaming technology course teachers have the flexibility to decide which game, whether math or problem solving, will best equip their students with 21st-century skills.

“Obviously, it won’t just be kids having war games with each other,” he said.

Course flexibility also enables students to follow different pathways or career clusters, Bignell said. Some students, for example, can choose a hands-on track while others can take on more of an academic approach, setting their sights on college readiness or a medical career field.

While this initiative is designed for high school students, Bignell said, the long-term goal is to stretch the preparation for this type of course work down to pre-kindergarten students.

“The way we would do that is by allowing our kids the opportunity in the future to have a different kind of rigorous instruction where they work more with a problem-based education,” he said. “We have to train students to have that kind of flexibility where they can adapt to different, changing situations.

“We are going to be experimenting with contemporary methodologies that we believe have to be implemented in order to give our kids chances of success in the 21st century,” he added.

Bignell said he hopes DODEA’s example will spread to public schools and positively affect military children attending school there. The majority of military youth, he noted, attend public schools.

“Education has to change,” he said. “And the way we educate kids has to change. We’re hoping to be a leader and a model if someone chooses to look.”

Based partially on the available talent pool, officials will chose 11 schools worldwide to initially test the program, Bignell said. The following courses will be available at the high schools listed:

-- Robotics engineering: Lakenheath High School in England, Wiesbaden High School in Germany and Kinnick High School in Japan;

-- Biotechnology engineering: Vicenza High School in Italy and Quantico High School in Virginia;

-- Gaming technology: Kinnick High School, Daegu High School in South Korea and Aviano High School in Italy;

-- Green technology: Kubasaki High School in Japan, Baumholder High School in Germany and Fort Campbell High School in Kentucky.

“We really have to do something, and I’m really proud we’re stepping up to the plate,” Bignell said.


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The opinions expressed in the following comments do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense.

3/31/2011 12:53:47 PM
Exposing young people to STEM is one area where public education should take a serious look at what DOD has already realized. As our world becomes increasingly reliant on technology in our day-to-day lives, fewer and fewer people understand the basic science that drives these developments. Many state school systems, following the leads of Federal mandates, now spend an inordinate amount of time teaching our kids how to take standardized tests, resulting in kids who know how to take tests but have no sense of curiosity to learn more about the world around them. This is not the way our children should be educated. Exposing elementary school-age children to the basic principles of STEM will build on a child's natural curiosity and the sense of wonder that things in the world can be explained, understood, and manipulated in a scientific manner. DOD should be applauded for this effort to really engage kids in science and technology.
- Geoff Chester, Washington, DC

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