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‘Connected Learning Initiative’ at HCDE uses Technology, Mentoring, Real-World Application to Motivate Females, Minorities to Pursue STEM Careers – Chevron Grant Fuels STEM Digital Learning Platforms

As a proactive response to the short list of females and minorities joining the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce, a new online STEM initiative at Harris County Department of Education is giving teachers the online training they need to expose middle and high school students to STEM curriculum and engineering careers through digital learning platforms.

The “Connected Learning Initiative” project is fueled by a $112,590 grant from Chevron funded through the Education Foundation of Harris County. Chevron is reaching out to public school leaders and educators to emphasize the importance of training a new generation of mechanical, technical and chemical engineers.

Although females make up over 50 percent of the current American workforce, women are employed in only 24 percent of science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs, says the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration. For under-represented minorities, the percentage is considerably less with only 13.3 percent joining the STEM workforce, according to data from the National Science Foundation.

Digital learning, math and science specialists at HCDE have created content for the Connected Learning Initiative to stimulate interest in STEM-related workforce opportunities and careers. The online platform provides teachers with tools they need to introduce math and science concepts in a real-world context. The blended, interdisciplinary lessons encourage student interest in STEM content and careers. As the curriculum is introduced to teachers through workshops at HCDE this summer, they will gain a minimum of 30 continuing education hours for completion.

Students use skills gained through subjects like algebra I and biology to participate in blended-learning, a mixing of different learning environments. The blended learning incorporates technology, classroom experiments and resources available through ProjectShare, an online shared resources portal for educators maintained by the Texas Education Agency.

For example, students use graphing skills with an online graphing device and use science equations to solve a catastrophe like an oil spill on a beach. As the curriculum progresses, they are introduced to role models like female engineers who discuss how they prepare for their careers and their duties on the job.

“We want to provide these teachers with skills, resources and experience,” said David McGeary, HCDE’s digital learning specialist who is coordinating the Connected Learning Initiative.

The underrepresentation of women in STEM careers exists, says HCDE science specialist Lisa Felske, even though numbers of college-educated women have increased. This summer HCDE hosts several onsite workshops called “STEM Careers in Science and Engineering” to show educators how to make STEM careers more appealing to women and minorities.

NASA scientists and engineers appear in videos and as live guests to accentuate the positives of STEM careers. The professionals also stress the importance of support personnel who are needed in engineering professions.

“Society often portrays scientists and engineers as men, and without more personal knowledge about women in science and engineering, girls in middle and high school may not see STEM careers as an option,” Felske said.

Notions and perceptions about STEM careers must change so that American companies can depend on “home grown candidates” as the future generation of engineers, say both Felske and McGeary. “Making it real” is part of that solution.
Doug Kleiner, Education Foundation of Harris County president/CEO, routinely interfaces with corporations who are concerned about the availability of future engineers and support workers.

“America’s corporations require that our educational system produce large numbers of competent, skilled professionals and potential support employees capable of doing complex jobs—or the companies will go elsewhere,” Kleiner said. Corporations who invest in innovative, STEM-related educational activities and development of digital training platforms for teachers are out in front, leading the way.”

Guest speakers at a recent STEM Careers in Science and Engineering workshop at the HCDE Science Lab included Heather Paul, an engineer who works for SpaceStation extravehicular activity tools and Judy Allton, scientist for Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science for NASA Johnson Space Center.

“The components we use to introduce young women and minorities to these STEM careers are positive role models, enhanced curriculum and active mentoring,” McGeary said. “This is innovative stuff, and it will affect change.”

Free training opportunities for math and science teachers in summer 2012:
• Free 45-hour online summer training opportunities for 50 science and 50 math high school teachers through the Connected Learning Initiative, a joint partnership through Chevron, Harris County Department of Education and the Education Foundation of Harris County. Call McGeary at (713) 696-1343 or e-mail dmcgreary@hcde-texas.org.
• STEM Careers in Science and Engineering Workshops: Learn from NASA scientists and engineers about how to employ strategies to encourage females and minorities to pursue STEM careers. Workshops are set for June 18 or Aug. 2 from 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. to be held at HCDE, 6300 Irvington Blvd., Houston, Texas, call Felske at (713) 696-1306 or e-mail lfelske@hcde-texas.org .

Photo cutline: Chevron leaders gather in May 2012 with international guests to tour the Harris County Department of Education Science Lab for teachers and to learn more about the “Connected Learning Initiative.”

About HCDE:
Harris County Department of Education provides education services to the general public and 26 school districts throughout Harris County and beyond. Services include adult education, programs to promote safe schools, after-school programs, therapy services, professional development for educators, special schools, alternative certification for principals and teachers, and Head Start programs. We offer purchasing procurement, grant development, program research and evaluation, records management, and school finance support. Since 1889, our services continue to evolve to meet the needs of our education public. Visit us at www.hcde-texas.org.

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