Tennessee’s Students are Moving Full STE(A)M Ahead

By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education

Just last month, we celebrated Tennessee students’ historic progress in science. Tennessee is now the fastest improving state in the country on the gold star national science assessment after our students showed growth in fourth and eighth grade (something no other state did) and narrowed or eliminated achievement gaps, including gaps between boys and girls.

Commissioner McQueen working with students in science.Any time our students accomplish this kind of progress, we are proud. But we are especially excited about these results because they show what we are doing is working, and building students’ foundational skills in areas like math and science is more critical than ever. Here is why.

Right now, too few of our high school students are interested—or ready to be successful—in what we call STEM fields, meaning those tied to science, technology, engineering, and math. Already, Tennessee employers cannot find skilled workers for jobs they have available, and companies are making decisions on where to grow and expand their businesses. STEM is the fifth-fastest-growing occupational cluster in the South with a projected employment of 3.3 million workers in Tennessee alone by 2020, just four years from now. That would be an increase of 400,000 jobs from where we are today.

If we want to advance our economic growth and equip students with the knowledge and skills to successfully embark upon a STEM pathway, then we have to increase the number of students who graduate prepared for these high-demand careers. Our new STEM Strategic Plan provides a road map for how we believe we will get there.

Student at TCAT HohenwaldThe plan was created with a STEM Leadership Council, which began to convene in June 2014 to help inform and direct the department’s STEM efforts moving forward. STEM education has always been part of Tennessee’s schools, but there has been a renewed focus over the past decade as the need for both a stronger education system and particularly for more STEM opportunities has become apparent.

Specifically, the council has examined how to provide all students access to rigorous STEM-related learning pathways that have embedded math and science standards, including how to ensure that all students have exposure to these pathways beginning in elementary school. Ultimately, the goal is that this will better equip all of our students to be successful in their studies after high school and develop a dynamic pipeline of future STEM professionals who are highly skilled across industries and in academic research.

STEM focus areasThe STEM Leadership Council has focused on four key areas: curriculum and instruction, achievement, professional development, and community and postsecondary partnerships. The new STEM Strategic Plan, out today, outlines strategies and recommendations within each that we believe will help to strengthen what we are doing in STEM in Tennessee, fully integrate STEM into everyday learning, and expand opportunities for students.

We will have an opportunity with the new Tennessee science standards, which will go into effect in 2018-19, to take another step further. Successfully addressing the four priority areas within the STEM Strategic Plan depends heavily on dedicated and integrated science instruction aligned to the new science standards, which will integrate technology and engineering within and beyond the science context. This, alongside the new, rich mathematics standards we will fully implement in the 2017-18 school year, will result in an integrated STEM instructional framework that will benefit all students.

ElectricityPartnerships must support our teachers and students if this work is to be successful, and there are excellent ones already in place to learn from. In 2010, the department partnered with Battelle Memorial Institute to launch the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network, which sought to develop high-quality STEM programming and build on momentum in school districts and in classrooms. For example, many of our schools have worked with organizations to earn designations as STEM academies, some educators have incorporated the arts into their teaching as a “STEAM” approach, and high school teachers have connected with local businesses or colleges to develop new learning pathways for their students. As these partnerships expand, we hope to see an increase in a diverse range of opportunities for students of all ages and all abilities, including a variety of career exploration programs (like job shadowing, work-based learning, internships, and externships), as well as an increase in externship and research opportunities for teachers, so they can stay connected to and inform the field.

Students learning science through artOur students’ success after they graduate is the backbone of our state’s success. From this work, we hope to see more students interested in those fields where we know there will be opportunities so they can build a strong life for themselves and their families. We want more of our students, especially more women and minorities, to enter into STEM fields—especially into high-wage jobs—and be ready to be successful on day one. We want to hear from our business leaders that they have qualified applicants who come from schools across the state. If we start to see those outcomes, we will know that we have been successful at cultivating innovation in our schools and that Tennessee is set up for long-term growth and success.

To read the STEM Strategic Plan, click here.