STEM Partnerships/Stock photo Beaker, flask Stock photo

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.

Enticing the Next Generation

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."

Developing Opportunities

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.

Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer