Op-Ed: Are We Losing Steam with STEM? By Patty Reed, FCPS School Board Member

Patty Reed

Patty Reed, Fairfax County Public Schools School Board member

Patty Reed is an incumbent Fairfax County Public Schools School Board member representing Providence District since 2009. She is up for re-election Nov. 3 and has been endorsed by the two teachers’ unions, Fairfax Education Association and Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, Class Size Counts and The Washington Post. Her husband, Craig Reed, is the Senior Vice President of Strategy & Corporate Development at Engility Corporation.

Those of us interested in science, technology, engineering and math need to band together and supercharge our collective efforts. We are losing out on the world stage. We aren’t cranking out enough talented students to meet the demands for high tech jobs today, let alone preparing them for jobs that don’t yet exist. Even here in Northern Virginia with all its resources.

In Fairfax County, we are extremely fortunate to have Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), the best public science and technology high school in the country. If a student is fortunate enough to be admitted, he or she can take advanced level classes, pursue research in a new high tech lab environment and participate in specialized clubs and competitions. Private foundation fundraising helps provide funds for extraordinary opportunities and programs.

But what about those who choose not to apply to TJ or are not accepted? What are we doing as a community to encourage all students who have a demonstrated passion and capability in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math? (Of note, advocates are increasingly broadening the discussion to include, science, technology, engineering, arts and math, if only to accommodate the clever acronym, “STEAM.”

Here in lies the disconnect. On the one hand, our academic and extracurricular opportunities vary widely throughout the public and private schools in our county, offering exceptional classes, camps, mentoring and other activities to some but not all our students. On the other hand, the county’s robust business community has strong sustained needs for employees with a strong STEM educational foundation. We are out of balance on the supply and demand equation and we are not keeping up on the supply side.

Another piece in this Rubik’s Cube is our community of talented, committed individuals who would do anything they can to “help promote STEM.” As a School Board member, business people routinely approach me, begging me to facilitate an entrée to Fairfax County’s school system to advance STEM capabilities. Some have specific ideas and initiatives they want to advance, others are just looking for a way to “pay it forward” for future generations.

With this background as context, I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but my interactions throughout our community tell me that we can and must do better. We should be able to achieve significant synergies by more effectively tying together the disparate but well-intentioned activities of parents, students, teachers, public, private and non-profit institutions. For starters, we need a central facilitator or czar whose sole purpose is to actively facilitate a countywide STEM education/workforce initiative in ways that to date have only been imagined.

Here is what I envision:

  • We need to develop a range of pathways from the classroom to employers. Some of these will go from our high schools through four-year colleges and universities, but some of these will also go through NOVA and vocational training programs. All of these would benefit from a Craig’s List-like clearing house for all kinds of “high priority” jobs, internships, work study programs, mentoring opportunities, apprenticeships and other opportunities for targeted learning and experience.
  • We need to take advantage of our highly-qualified community members and bring them into the classroom. Our teachers are already overworked and underpaid and we cannot ask them to do more without taking something else off their plate. Elementary school teachers are expected to be experts in all subjects, and literacy in math and science is critical. Charles Britt at NOVA tells me that an impediment to greater community involvement in the classroom is the lengthy, cumbersome school clearance requirement. It seems to me that we should be able to streamline this process.
  • We need to optimize our relationships with the community for mutual benefit. Many corporations and businesses are already valuable partners in our schools, and their contributions are tremendous. How can we help these business partners get visibility and credit with the broader community for this goodwill, which will incentivize even greater contributions? Could we coordinate these contributions better to achieve greater economies of scale? My gut instinct is that there is significant potential here and we need to focus on what could be.
  • We need a point of contact for parents that aspire to a “yellow brick road” for STEM for their children. Well-intentioned parents actively research opportunities for their children to gain valuable knowledge, skills and abilities. One outstanding venue is the annual STEM Symposium hosted by JD Kathuria and WashingtonExec. We should applaud JD for stepping up to fill a void in our community, a sector that is not a part of WashingtonExec’s core mission.
  • We need to create a culture of ambassadors and mentors in our schools. Many of our students (and their parents) are ambitious over-achievers, piling on classes and activities with the hopes of getting into the best colleges. At high school graduations, I see more and more students graduating with GPAs over 4.0. They are looking ahead with great fervor. How do we harness their talents and energies to share their stories and expertise with others in the classroom? To become ambassadors to younger students? Tutoring or mentoring should become a greater part of our school culture.
  • We need to optimize the use of technology to accelerate our learning, our connections and our ability to offer pipelines for our business community. For example, FCPS, NOVA and the business community could collaborate with great groups like the new Children’s Science Center to offer TED Talks. We could advertise challenge ideas with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts searching for meaningful big (required) projects. The opportunities are only limited by the imagination.
  • We need to coordinate efforts better across the county, and even the region. We could have a county or regional conference, a speakers’ bureau, an association, and invite broad participation from stakeholders. Good ideas aren’t limited to one neighborhood or segment of the community.

The possibilities here are endless. We are on the cusp of something that could be a game changer. But we need a champion, a quarterback. We need John Elway. (True confession: I’m a lifelong Broncos fan).

I do believe there is an organization ready, willing and able to take on this role: the Leadership Fairfax program (LFI). As a 2012 graduate of LFI, I know this group and its alumni network is bursting with potential. So I met with President and CEO Karen Cleveland to discuss the world of possibilities. She and I agreed that Leadership Fairfax might be our quarterback. She and I will be meeting with JD [Kathuria] soon to explore these concepts further. And we need to provide opportunities for the local business community and others to provide input. But we must get to the point soon where we stop talking and start making meaningful, exponential strides in changing our supply and demand equation.

So much is riding on it.

More information: http://www.reed4schoolboard.com/ 

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1 Comment

  1. …if only to accommodate the clever acronym, “STEAM.”

    Wow – glad to see such support for a well rounded education and specifically the arts. Most of our national workforce is not in technology or engineering; many business leaders lament the lack of well trained STEM graduates but even more lament graduates who can not write and can not think creatively.

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