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March 2013:

STEM Goes Mainstream: À la Carte Menu Available to Howard Students

By George Berkheimer, Senior Writer

March 4, 2013

Posted in: News

Without any warning whatsoever, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) has become cool. Educators warned us it would happen. Once kids got a taste of it and got their eyes opened to its mysteries, they would flock to it. They would want more of it.

And somebody would provide it. You can be sure of that.

Well, it’s happened. In Howard County. Kids are doing it at the library. They’re spending time digging into web sites full of it that didn’t even exist six months ago. And the cartoons. They speak the kids’ language. That’s how they operate. And STEM is now entrenched in the community.

It’s a validation of sorts, a slowly evolving idea that has finally ripened. For months and years, there was a lot of talk about the importance of teaching STEM curricula and exposing students to it, but there wasn’t really a lot of opportunity outside of school and school-sanctioned events.

Now two key players have stepped up to provide STEM for STEM’s sake, outside the traditional academic delivery channel.

The HiTech Center at Howard County’s Savage Branch Library allows middle school and high school aged students to explore a variety of technology-driven skills, including music production, electronic publishing and video game design.

Online, The Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), of North Laurel, has launched a new web site that consolidates its STEM programming and allows students to discover for themselves just how useful STEM knowledge can be.

Hands On

According to Angela Brade, the Howard County Library System’s COO for support services, library administrators began looking for ways to add technology as an educational component of its youth programs in 2011.

In January 2012, the library received a $100,000 federal STEM grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, which enabled the development of a digital media lab for teens at the Savage Branch Library.

Envisioned as a launching point for the STEM career pipeline, HiTech capitalizes on the county’s advantage as home to a number of major STEM-oriented employers and higher education institutions by engaging local professionals in the program. Industry experts and peer mentors teach teens basic and advanced skills, guiding students as they create their own applications and tools.

The HiTech Center focuses on five technology areas: digital media and publication tools; games; digital music and multimedia; academic fields, including engineering, programming, robotics and nanotechnology; and international exchange.

“It’s open to anybody [from] 11 to 18 years of age, but there’s a registration process because of space limitations,” Brade said.

The library bills the center as a place where teens can “hang out and geek out,” and geek out they do. With the guidance of mentors from Mindgrub Technologies in Baltimore, a group of HiTech students recently released an interactive mobile game for smartphones and tablet devices that is now enjoying global popularity.

Available free from both iTunes and Google Play, the game, called Escape From Detention, requires players to help a student wrongly sent to detention escape from increasingly complex scenarios.

“One of our students produced and recorded a song that is now being shared with others, and another group is in the final stages of releasing an e-book that they wrote together,” Brade said.

Out-of-School Experience

A survey of some of the students who use the HiTech Center reflects the enthusiasm they have for the program and the real-world applications they encounter there after school and on Saturdays.

Alex Smith, who is attending a fashion design class, said she likes the hands-on environment that allows students to work independently on subjects that interest them.

“Our teacher is experienced in the fashion industry and has designed vests that are used for law enforcement,” she said. “I also get to meet new kids from other schools, and it’s nice to meet new people and make new friends.”

Smith said she has learned a lot about the fashion industry from the class. “Right now I would like to become an actress, but the fashion industry is closely related to the entertainment industry, so I will get to enjoy the best of both worlds,” she said.

Another student, Desmond Capers, has attended game design, 3-D animation and computer programming seminars.

“The most beneficial seminar was Game Programming,” he said. “It was incredibly detailed and directed toward teaching us how and what it takes to design and build a virtual game. What kept me coming back were the skills I learned and the interactive labs done throughout the day.”

Kendall Howze has also participated in the 3-D animation program and the fashion technology class.

“Everything from designing to the history of fashion is something they don’t teach us at school,” Howze said. “There used to be a sewing class in the Family and Consumer Science program, but they removed it. Since there was no fashion unit in any class, I love coming to learn about it at HiTech.”

The class helps students gain a deeper level of understanding fashion that goes beyond just dresses and clothing, she said. “It gives a completely new idea to the fashion industry.”

On the Web

In October 2012, APL’s STEM Program Management Office launched a dedicated web site (www.jhuapl.edu/stem) aimed at students, teachers and parents.

“It’s a great resource that gives teachers additional materials that apply to what their students learn in the classroom,” said Dwight Carr, APL’s STEM program manager. “It also allows us to present stories about some of the staff who work here. If a student wants to know what classes to take or what they need to learn to be able to work in one of the jobs we highlight, they can find it in our Class and Career Guidance section.”

They can also find information about APL’s ASPIRE mentoring program, STEM competitions that are held at APL, and events like the upcoming Girl Power STEM Expo, scheduled for March 17, which encourages middle school and high school girls to take an interest in STEM subjects and introduces them to female role models within APL.

There are also on-demand videos, STEM-related activities that students can do on their own, and links to helpful sites where students can learn even more about science.

Return Visits

Since its launch the site has logged about 4,000 unique visits a month, Carr said. Many visitors keep coming back to see what’s new, or to read Fifth Period, a comic strip designed to promote STEM education that chronicles the adventures of a group of school friends and their science teacher.

“Our focus with the web site was obviously the local area, but we do get inquiries from visitors living in a number of different states,” Carr said. “We know we’re reaching an audience and making an impact.”

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