‘Today marks the beginning of what’s to come’
The best of the best will share their stories on aligning education with business and industry today at the Iowa STEM School+Business Innovation Conference.
Organized by the Iowa Governor’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Advisory Council, the conference aims to equip attendees with the knowledge, connections and resources to build partnerships in their home communities.
"The cross-sections of Iowa that are represented at today’s Iowa STEM School+Business Innovation Conference will help spread a statewide fever for more school-business partnerships in local communities both big and small," said Jeff Weld, executive director of the Iowa Governor's STEM Advisory Council. "These partnerships are not only a way of answering the call to make more Iowans 'Future Ready,' but will also unite the worlds of business and education on a mission to boost the college and career-ready talent coming out of K-12."
The Iowa Department of Education partnered with the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council to co-lead a team focusing specifically on connecting young Iowans to learning experiences. The intent is to build awareness of, and better prepare students for, middle-skill career opportunities in STEM-intensive industries such as advanced manufacturing, health care, information technology and energy. Funded by a grant from the National Governors Association, plans are under way to incorporate work-based learning into the state’s talent pipeline.
“New legislation signed into law this spring raises the quality of career and technical education (CTE) programs in the state and encourages alignment of school programs to in-demand occupations to better prepare students to succeed in college and careers,” said Pradeep Kotamraju, the Department of Education’s bureau chief for career and technical education. “We are working together to set standards for high-quality work-based learning programs by developing common measurement tools using a new form of school-business partnership known as STEM BEST® (Businesses Engaging Students and Teachers). Our intent is for these tools to have general applicability to all types of work-based learning experiences.”
Some of Iowa’s STEM BEST® partnerships are among the models being shared with conference participants. The Governor’s STEM Advisory Council has awarded eight STEM Best® programs since 2014 where teachers and industry professionals work together to craft curriculum and develop projects to prepare students for career pathways in STEM fields.
Dan Cox, superintendent of schools for the Charles City Community School District, leads one such program, recognized as a 2015 STEM BEST® model, which is currently being developed in northeast Iowa.
“Chickasaw, Floyd, and Mitchell counties are home to multiple global businesses that encompass a wide array of STEM-related careers and opportunities,” he said. “Their presence in rural, northeast Iowa plays an important part in the life and vitality of the region’s small towns and communities. By working on interdisciplinary projects and interacting with business partners, students will be more aware of these opportunities and realize that quality, high-paying career opportunities can be found right here in their own backyards.”
Based off of the existing Iowa BIG program in Cedar Rapids and another program in suburban Kansas City, the intent is to blend the best of both models so that students have the option to remain in their home school building or travel to a business site in one of the participating districts for on-site courses where businesses will serve as key partners to enhance and sustain quality education experiences.
By partnering together four school districts – Charles City, New Hampton, Osage and Rudd-Rockford-Marble Rock – the program will have the numbers to sustain courses at a business site and can serve as a model for other rural school districts across Iowa.
“Innovative practices do not have to be limited to large, urban areas where enrollment growth and resources are plentiful,” Cox said. “Innovation can happen in rural Iowa, too.”
Iowa BIG, a 2014 STEM BEST® awardee, created through the efforts of the Gazette Companies and the Cedar Rapids Community School District, is one of the model programs for the northeast Iowa initiative. The concept for Iowa BIG was conceived after community leaders participated in a back-to-school program where they spent a day observing classroom learning. Based on their observations, the consensus was that despite the teachers’ best efforts, students weren’t engaged in class content because they didn’t see how it was applicable to the real world.
Guided by the belief that students must be provided with contextually rich experiences where they not only develop basic skills but also learn how to put those skills to action solving real problems, Iowa BIG engages students in authentic community projects. Students have worked on a wide range of projects, including a revitalization plan for Bever Park Zoo, a self-navigating spectrometer to measure and analyze PCB levels in Iowa waters, and the development of a drone for agricultural mapping and research purposes, among others.
“It is important for student passion to drive the projects,” said Troy Miller, director of strategic partnerships at Iowa BIG. “When students are passionate about their work it drives deeper learning and connects them to the people and resources of the corridor. Students report that they are confident in their abilities to communicate professionally, manage their time and design solutions to real-world problems as a result of their participation in Iowa BIG.”
What started as a pilot program with just 12 students, Iowa BIG will have 140 students participating in 60 different community projects during the 2016-17 school year.
“My advice for initiating new partnerships is to invite your communities to reimagine education,” Miller said. “Start with a pilot and you will see momentum and success. Embed programming within the community – make the community be the curriculum. Doing that guarantees your program will remain relevant and up to speed.”
Other initiatives in the state focus on filling a specific business need in their communities.
One such program is Rocket Manufacturing, a 2014 STEM BEST® awardee. The Rock Valley School District program bridges the skills gap in northwest Iowa by linking business and education to provide students with real-world manufacturing experiences.
A fully functioning, student-led company, Rocket Manufacturing fills a need in the business community while giving students real-world experience in the community’s thriving manufacturing industry. Students have to interview for one of 20 positions in the program, just as they would for a real-world job.
“When I arrived in Rock Valley five years ago we didn’t have existing industry partnerships,” said Chad Janzen, superintendent of Rock Valley Community School District. “A local business executive approached me with an idea stemming from a manufacturing program in Wisconsin. After visiting the site and learning more about Cardinal Manufacturing, we were sold.”
With one full year under their belts, Rocket Manufacturing is already ahead of plan. Students are knowledgeable about local business processes, adept at using specialized equipment and tools, and have gained valuable experience working with local businesses to meet their needs.
“The self-confidence students’ gain through working for Rocket Manufacturing is immeasurable,” Janzen said. “One of the best things about this program is that it is for everybody, not just top performing students. Through this program, many students have realized that they are capable of more than they originally thought was possible.”
As stakeholders begin working on a statewide CTE implementation plan, programs such as these will serve as models for change where communities, educators, employers and industry experts are all engaged in program design. While the legislation guiding the redesign of CTE policy in Iowa does many things, one area in particular aims to improve access to high-quality programming through a statewide system of regional planning partnerships.
“The CTE reform initiative, which focuses on middle and high school students, will help ensure that all students in Iowa will have access to high-quality, meaningful, worked-based experiences, such as these programs,” Kotamraju said. “Today marks the beginning of what is to come.”