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Friday, Nov 28, 2014
Editorials

Hillsborough school district’s STEM program a needed boost

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The focus on hiring science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers is getting a boost in Hillsborough County thanks to the school district’s recent acceptance into a national program that is dedicated to filling the void.

The Hillsborough district is one of a handful in the nation, and the only one in Florida, participating in the “100K in 10” initiative launched by President Obama in 2011 to train, hire and retain 100,000 STEM teachers over 10 years.

In applying for membership in the group, the district made the bold promise to hire 3,000 STEM teachers.

Unlike so many federal programs, this is not a government handout. The program operates on private donations and support from corporations, nonprofits and academic institutions working to overcome the nation’s troubling deficit of educators willing and able to teach math and science.

“I would consider our shortage of STEM teachers to be a critical shortage,” says Larry Plank, the Hillsborough district’s director of K-12 STEM education. “Now more than ever before we need STEM teachers in our schools.”

It’s been well documented that the United States is falling behind other developed nations in producing graduates who can work in engineering and other disciplines requiring STEM skills. As the Tribune’s Erin Kourkounis reports, a Georgetown University study projects 2.4 million STEM job openings across the nation over the next four years. Having enough qualified candidates to fill those jobs will boost the economy along with the nation’s competitiveness on the world stage.

Hillsborough plans to work with the University of South Florida and the University of Tampa, as well as with businesses and national corporations that have signed on to the program. It will train teachers in math and science and recruit non-STEM teachers who might be suitable for teaching math and science.

The idea is to train, hire and then retain STEM teachers, particularly in the middle schools where shortages are acute. The district is typically forced each year to replace about 10 percent of its math and science teachers, twice the replacement rate for all teachers.

Finding qualified candidates isn’t easy, as the district recently learned by participating in a five-year initiative that offered financial incentives to get college graduates with degrees in fields other than STEM to pursue teaching careers in science and math. The Science and Mathematics Accelerated Readiness for Teaching program, known as SMART, began in 2009 with a $2.25 million federal grant and with the goal of hiring 250 STEM teachers over five years. It offers $2,000 scholarships and reimbursements for testing costs, but is now in its final year and appears to be falling short of its goal, projecting it will end up hiring about half as many as it had hoped.

Although that’s disappointing, the lessons learned and the teachers hired should help the district pursue its new goal of hiring several thousand teachers who can produce graduates ready to compete in the STEM fields.

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