In August 2009, ninth-graders entered the building across the street from the University of Cincinnati and cracked open their digital backpacks.
Inside the backpacks, they found an iPod, a digital camcorder, a tripod and microphones. Armed with these high-tech mobile tools, the students split into groups for a multimedia project.
At brand new Hughes STEM High School, the days of learning solely by lectures and handouts are history. In this new environment, students would learn concepts of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by using their hands.
Hughes STEM High School was made possible by a partnership between the university and Cincinnati Public Schools, and has emerged at a critical time: Education and government advocates have claimed for decades that a coming shortage of U.S. scientists and engineers will hamper homeland innovation and economic development.
This partnership reflects a national trend of collaboration between K-12 and higher education to put more students on track for STEM careers. Through collaboration, schools can connect across district lines, share resources and develop in-depth programs. These programs allow students to learn through hands-on activities, project-based assignments and apprenticeships in the field.
With these methods, leaders hope to shatter stereotypes about STEM fields, and prove to students that math and science careers are anything but boring.
In recent years, the push for qualified STEM professionals, touted as a key force in America's new economy, has increased. President Barack Obama has promised to train 100,000 more scientists and engineers over the next four years. Demands have loomed large for U.S. schools, which bear the bulk of responsibility for producing qualified STEM professionals.
But many students don't know enough about the industry to even think about pursuing STEM jobs, said Carla Johnson, director of the FUSION (Furthering Urban STEM Innovation, Outreach and New Research) Center at the University of Cincinnati.
"They know it's something that pays pretty well," she said. "But they couldn't tell you about the varying careers within engineering."
Schools like Hughes are offering a solution to that problem. Hughes not only introduces students to the myriad career possibilities a STEM education can help them obtain, but also offers high school/college enrollment programs, co-ops and internships. The school represents part of a statewide effort, through the Ohio STEM Learning Network, to create and connect innovative STEM schools and learning opportunities. Hughes also has a professional practice and demonstration laboratory operated by UC FUSION Center faculty.
After one year of intense planning, the school opened its doors to more than 300 ninth-grade students, an eclectic mix from about 50 different schools.
As students advance, officials plan to add grades 10, 11 and 12. With so many diverse minds under one roof, Principal Virginia Rhodes recognizes the collaborative parallels between the school and the STEM industry.
"Part of the issue in STEM is that we need people who can relate to other people, and can work on tasks and problem solve together," she said. "That means figuring out different roles, team leadership and learning how to listen to other people's ideas -- all the things that industry professionals need."
On the upper northwestern corner of New York, St. Lawrence County stretches across 2,800 square miles, a rural expanse of villages, forests and farms. The fifth largest county east of the Mississippi River, St. Lawrence has 18 school districts scattered throughout the county, all overseen by the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES).
"In a community like this, where there is very little real industry, we have to be able to develop new skills and opportunities for students in this area," said Peter R. Turner, Clarkson University's dean of arts and sciences and a professor of mathematics and computer science.
Three years ago, St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES connected with Clarkson University to create the St. Lawrence County STEM Partnership. With roots in a math program started in 2004, this partnership unites faculty and students from Clarkson with 200 local instructors to enhance STEM teaching and develop project-based learning models.
Funded by New York state in the No Child Left Behind program, the partnership includes one-day workshops and weeklong summer institutes. Leaders prepare students for competitions, such as MATHCOUNTS, Science Olympiad and FIRST Robotics, and also develop various STEM programs.
One such program is a roller coaster camp on Clarkson's campus, where high school students experiment with tracking devices, moving tires, remote control trucks and rockets to analyze acceleration, momentum and g-force data. They also get to ride their own coaster designs in Clarkson's programmable virtual roller coaster that spins 360 degrees and simulates wind.
"Many of our kids have never been to a college campus or been around people who are educated on that level," said Mike Montgomery, an instructional specialist with St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES. "It motivates them on what they can do and what they can become. It opens their eyes to the opportunities in STEM."
That same energy could be felt at STEMapalooza, an event held at the Colorado Convention Center in October 2009. Created by the University of Colorado Denver's Center for Applied Science and Mathematics for Innovation and Competitiveness, STEMapalooza brought more than 100 exhibitors from around the state to the convention center to promote STEM in a free, two-day public event. About 5,500 people came to the first STEMapalooza held in 2008 and for this most recent event, attendance spiked to nearly 10,000.
"Everywhere you looked, you saw people having fun while engaged in activities and conversations focused on STEM," said Sharon Unkart, managing director of the center. "Last year, there was a joke that the only kid who got lost was found at a college recruiting table."
With Ohio and Colorado, Massachusetts stands at the forefront of the STEM movement, boasting a wide array of partnerships between K-12 schools and universities.
The Center for STEM Education, based in Boston, started its educational outreach work in the late 1980s as an outgrowth of various research projects that developed at Northeastern University. The center focuses on partnerships with local school districts, lending support wherever possible.
For example, the GK12 project, a National Science Foundation (NSF) program supporting STEM fellowships and training for graduate students, might work with a school district seeking content assistance for science classrooms. The center secured NSF funding to connect with university academic departments and bring doctoral students to K-12 classrooms. Not only does the collaboration benefit young students, but it also helps graduate students who may want to teach get a better feel for the environment.
"Getting them into a classroom early in their careers will increase their comfort level, help them reinforce science concepts and explain it in context," said Claire Duggan, the center's director for programs and operations. "And it provides additional manpower in the school."
Citizen Schools Massachusetts, part of a national network that operates apprenticeship programs, connects students in the Boston area with STEM field experts two afternoons each week. Every spring, the organization offers a number of science apprenticeships with Wentworth University, where students come together to race solar cars. In another program with Northeastern, students learn about computer programming.
"On one hand, it attracts students because they want to learn how to create video games," said Melissa Rouette, director of civic engagement for Citizen Schools Massachusetts. "At the same time, it is so math-focused that students really have to be enhancing their math skills to be successful."
Across the country, as the push for more STEM professionals continues, partnerships between K-12 schools and colleges will continue to expand as a win-win option for both sides: Colleges and universities can have a direct influence on their future undergraduates, and the younger set can experience STEM in a real-world context.
"It inspires students to think about careers that they may have never thought of before," Rouette said. "It provides them with role models who are studying and majoring or working in these fields. Then students say, 'Maybe I want to do this when I grow up.'"