Bellingham schools promote tech education with classes, interactions

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 7, 2014 

The fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM, have been identified as the most critical to fill our country's need for skilled and technical labor. STEM-related careers are the fastest growing and are considered high-demand, high-wage jobs. The lack of potential employees to fill these jobs has created a skills gap that has spread across our country.

In an effort to bridge this gap over the last few years, Bellingham Public Schools has placed emphasis on increasing course offerings and promoting STEM pathways to educate students about the job market that they will be entering in the near future. The Bellingham Promise, the strategic plan for Bellingham Public Schools, compels us to ensure all our students find a passion for their learning and are ready for the widest range of educational and vocational options as possible. We believe offering STEM classes and other related opportunities is a positive and critical step in developing students and graduates who are scientists and mathematicians. We have looked at a variety of flexible options to engage students and inspire them to investigate the possibilities in these high-demand markets. STEM courses in Bellingham are continuously enhanced and updated to teach skills and technical training that is considered "industry-standard." The school district has recently purchased new engineering software, computing curriculum and high-tech equipment such as laser engravers, 3D printers, and computer numeric control machines to enhance the learning experience.

This school year, Bellingham Public Schools has expanded the Career and Technical Education offerings to address some of these industry needs. New courses include computer science, technical writing, robotics, and a Microsoft Office specialist certification. As these courses are piloted this year, we are working to offer these programs at each high school in the coming year. As computing-related STEM careers are the most in-demand across the country we are focusing our efforts to promote and bolster our computer science offerings in each high school and start programming courses in the middle schools. We are also in the planning stages to develop more offerings in STEM-related fields that could go into the new Sehome and Options high schools' construction plans.

The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics program directed by Kevin Criez at Sehome High School has been the districtwide catalyst for our STEM programs. It is designed to promote STEM by bringing students, teachers and professional mentors together to solve real-world problems. Our district has fully supported this organization, and we are making strides to increase this program. We have established robotics and computer programming courses in the middle schools where students are using VEX robots and designing apps on android mobile phones. Our district is also in the process of gauging interest on an elementary and middle school First Lego League to get kids thinking about STEM in the fourth through eighth grades. The league is not about building Lego toys, but about programming Lego robots to solve problems.

We are excited to start planning these offerings and have found many interested professionals to lead these programs for our kids. Engineering STEM instructors across the district have worked to develop additional career and technical student organizations such as the Technology Student Association. Our district now has three active chapters. This student-driven organization provides an outlet for students to be innovative and apply STEM concepts through competitions and curriculum enhancements. Courses such as engineering technology, applied physics, video productions, visual communications and robotics are leading students into this extra-curricular program.

Bellingham Public Schools joined the Northwest Career and Technical Academy consortium that provides an even greater variety of STEM-related course offerings to Bellingham students. STEM courses include marine technology, welding, engineering, construction, computer information systems, dental-tech, vet-tech and medical assisting. The academy offers these programs in four different campuses, Mount Vernon, Anacortes, Meridian and Whatcom Community College. Our partnership with the career and technical academy supports students who aspire to pursue a technical career.

Bellingham Public Schools is proud of its efforts to promote STEM. We expect our offerings to students to continue to grow in the future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeff Tetrick is the career and technical education director for Bellingham Public Schools.

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