STEM Workforce is a Top Priority for Schools, Businesses in North Carolina's Eastern Region
Students at Havelock Middle School in Havelock, NC, work on projects in the STEM Lab at the School. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Each class period the students work on projects ranging from robotics to the use of plastics and polymers. JCI Photo - Todd Bennett
"The focus on STEM is becoming a culture in Eastern North Carolina," says Kathy Howard, Vice President of Workforce and Client Development for North Carolina's Eastern Region Development Commission.
The collection of disciplines known as STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – is a top priority in North Carolina's Eastern Region, where employers are looking to hire the next generation of workers with training in those fields.
STEM East, affiliated with North Carolina's Eastern Region Development Commission (NCER), is at the center of initiatives in these four disciplines. The organization fosters partnerships between schools, businesses and other entities that want to grow the region's STEM capabilities.
"Our primary goal is to meet the challenges of providing a STEM-trained workforce," says Steve Hill, Executive Director of STEM East. "Building partnerships, connecting and collaborating with existing or developing resources is the most efficient and effective way to do that."
Starting with K-12
One of STEM East's primary projects is its STEM Learning Network, which already includes five learning centers in K-12 schools across four counties. These state-of-the-art classrooms operate as hands-on, student-centric environments where STEM professionals—engineers, computer programmers and more – work with students and teachers to connect classroom learning with real-world applications. STEM East is currently working actively with two additional school districts interested in adding STEM Centers in middle schools and joining the Learning Network.
"This kind of interaction with STEM professionals is critical for attracting students to STEM careers," says Kathy Howard, Vice President of Workforce and Client Development for NCER. "It's really what drives students to understand the importance of what they're learning."
And the impact on student success is profound.
"We had a troubled fourth-grader who was really struggling before the principal placed him in one of the upper middle-school STEM learning centers as an experiment," Hill says. "The new concept and environment engaged him so much that he became a high-performing student and was passing eighth-grade algebra."
Partnering with Local Industry
Of course, high-performing students often become high-performing employees – which is why industry leaders are happy to partner with STEM East.
Spirit AeroSystems, FRC East and their employees have both donated generously to STEM East projects, but their commitment goes beyond money. They help teachers develop industry-focused curriculum, offer summer internships for teachers and students, and establish school-to-workforce pathways for students interested in STEM careers. Other key industry partners include SPX, AAR Cargo Systems and Cooper Standard.
"We even have companies waiting in the wings," Hill says. "There's so much interest that we haven't had time to sit down with everyone yet."
Paving the Way to Higher Education
STEM careers are also a priority in higher education. Greenville's East Carolina University offers degrees in engineering, industrial technology, and the physical and life sciences as well as computer science. The university also works with area community colleges to make it easier for STEM students to turn two-year degrees or certificates into professional-level, four-year degrees. Mount Olive College gives aspiring nurses a head start in their field, thanks to a new program that allows students to earn their RN certification and their B.S. degree simultaneously. Community colleges are joining forces with local manufacturers to fill the skills gap in maintenance and other STEM-oriented technical fields.
"The focus on STEM is becoming a culture in Eastern North Carolina," NCER's Howard says. "We are gaining national attention, presenting in multiple national STEM innovation formats and have been noted as a model for the country. We feel like we're doing a great job to make sure employers have the workforce they need."