STEM

Capable & confident: How K-12 STEM programs are preparing Greater Lafayette’s workforce of tomorrow

BY ANGELA K. ROBERTS

Lana Beck, a bright, inquisitive second-grader at Mintonye Elementary in Lafayette, was born into a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) family. Her parents are university administrators with degrees in science, and a grandfather and an uncle are biomedical engineers.

Between visits to family members’ research buildings and bedtime readings of books such as “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” Lana’s parents make a point of exposing her to all things STEM during her off-school hours. When it came time to schedule Lana for summer camp in 2019, it was only logical to mix in stints at Straight Arrow and Boiler Kids Camp with a week at Super Summer, sponsored by Purdue University’s Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute. 

As Lana and her classmates explored the theme of “Discovery through History,” examining the role of ancient civilizations on the modern world, they employed their STEM skills to develop a Mayan calendar, discover how a solar oven works, and create an aqueduct out of cardboard.

The verdict? Lana loved it. “I have wondered if it was the novelty of it, but it was certainly her favorite [of the three camps]. And she liked the other two,” says her mother, Kaethe Beck, operations director for the Purdue University Life Sciences Initiative. “She came home one day looking for us to translate her message that she wrote using hieroglyphs after they learned how to make their own paper. She was just thrilled to have a secret language and to know how paper is made.”

For several decades, the GERI program, part of Purdue’s College of Education, has provided enrichment activities for academically, creatively and artistically talented youth. Super Summer offers programming for kindergarten through fourth grade in not only STEM subjects but also social studies, art and language arts. The Summer Residential Camp has similar offerings for students in fifth through 12th grades. GERI is one of many programs in the Greater Lafayette area designed to open local students’ minds to the possibilities of STEM education, and ultimately, careers. 

A STEM-based economy

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics play a key role in our nation’s economy. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, employment in STEM occupations — which Pew broadly defines as including not only computer science and engineering, but also healthcare — grew from 9.7 million in 1990 to 17.3 million in 2016, outpacing the nation’s overall job growth. Those statistics are especially relevant in areas such as Greater Lafayette, where industry and healthcare reign. 

While Purdue University may be the top employer in Tippecanoe County, seven others on the top-10 list — including Subaru of Indiana Automotive Inc., Caterpillar Inc. and Wabash National Corp. — are manufacturers. The other two are IU Health Arnett Hospital and Franciscan St. Elizabeth East. Search the online want ads for the area, and you’ll find postings for engineers, factory technicians, registered nurses and certified nursing assistants, all of which require various levels of STEM skills.

“The local economy here is heavily manufacturing based, and we’re trying to address that,” says Miranda Hutcheson, director of the new Greater Lafayette Career Academy (GLCA), which opened in August in the old Lafayette Life building on 18th Street across from Lafayette Jefferson High School. “Almost every industry right now needs employees; we hear that almost every day.”

Pathways to success

GLCA, a cooperative effort that includes Lafayette School Corp., Tippecanoe School Corp. and the West Lafayette Community School Corp., is designed to prepare students for both college and careers. Students attend their home schools for a half-day either in the morning or the afternoon and spend the rest of their time at the academy. Credits at the academy count toward a diploma from their home schools. 

Local schools offer some beginning career and technical education courses, says Laurie Rinehart, director of guidance and assistant principal at Lafayette Jeff. However, GLCA is providing “more advanced courses and more advanced experiences to connect them with the next step, whether it’s the workforce or going to trade school or college,” she says. Through such programs as advanced manufacturing, computer science and nursing, academy students can earn industry certifications, dual credits or both. 

Coursework aligns with the new Graduation Pathways program, approved by the Indiana State Board of Education in 2017, in which Hoosier students create their own roadmaps to preparing for life after high school. Those pathways took effect last fall for incoming high school freshmen.

Hutcheson describes the pathways as on- and off-ramps on an interstate. “Whatever your educational attainment goal is or career goal, you can get off the ramp if needed and then get right back on if that’s what you choose,” she says. Students with industry certifications can enter the workforce immediately or spend two or four years in college before using that certification on the job. Others may work for a while, then attend college. Those who earn dual credits can go right on to college or delay their postsecondary education for a while. 

All GLCA classes are designed to be as hands-on as possible, both on- and off-campus. Aspiring medical assistants, for example, will attend labs where they learn skills such as checking vital signs, giving injections and charting patient progress. After graduation, they will complete an externship at a local healthcare facility.

Some students may discover that they don’t enjoy what they’re studying. That’s actually a valuable learning experience, Hutcheson says: “It’s a win for us if a student says, ‘This is not for me.’ We’ve eliminated that from a student’s future career options.”

STEM competence and confidence

Beyond the career academy, many other local initiatives are designed to build STEM competence and confidence. Greater Lafayette Commerce, for instance, sponsors CoderDojo, a free computer science club in which kids aged 7 to 17 learn programming from computer science professionals. Programs average 30 students at each of the two locations, says Kara Webb, workforce development director. Last fall, GLC planned to add two more locations to the monthly lineup.

GLC’s annual Manufacturing Week showcases STEM career possibilities available here in the Greater Lafayette region. More than 3,34o students signed up for last year’s event, which ran Sept. 30-Oct. 4. High school students toured manufacturers, seeing the workforce in action and learning what type of training would prepare them for industry careers. Middle schoolers attended a daylong expo, exploring stations focused on design, production, distribution and support services, such as nursing and cybersecurity.

“We highlight that manufacturing has numerous career pathways, not just production,” Webb says. Elementary students attended a half-day manufacturing awareness workshop, learning about lean manufacturing, quality, teamwork and the effect of manufacturing on people’s lives. 

Across the river at Purdue University, K-12 STEM programs abound. Purdue’s Women in Engineering offerings, for example, include after-school programs such as Imagination, Innovation, Discovery and Design (I2D2) for kindergarteners through fifth graders and Innovation to Reality (I2R) for sixth to eighth graders.

“Children are being exposed to STEM education in their formal school settings already, so what we do is really intended to be a reinforcement of that exposure,” says Beth M. Holloway, assistant dean for diversity and engagement in the College of Engineering and the Leah H. Jamieson Director of Women in Engineering. A fundamental part of WIEP’s programming is engaging current engineering students, particularly women, to serve as role models to youngsters.

Starting early

“For our programs that are targeted to seventh to 10th grades, we also do sessions for parents that address ways to encourage their child’s interest in engineering in particular, and STEM in general,” Holloway says. “Course expectations are covered there as well.”

Middle school is an ideal time to begin planning for high school, Rinehart says. In fact, she and her colleagues at Jeff are talking to eighth grade parents about the career academy so that interested students can plan their schedules accordingly. 

“They’re over there a whole half day. Not all students can do that,” Rinehart says of the GLCA students. “These conversations have to start with our kids in middle school, in eighth grade and freshman year; we have many students who want to go but can’t fit it in their schedule.”

For parents like Kaethe Beck, it’s never too early to start preparing her children for the future. “I can expose her to many different things and let her choose what interests her, reinforcing that she can explore any one of these disciplines in a capable, confident way,” she says of her daughter Lana.

And regardless of whether Lana pursues a career in STEM or in another discipline, lessons like those at Super Summer are equipping her with important life skills, Beck says. 

“I think children are inherently curious,” she explains. “It’s the what, why, how that kids always want to ask about anyway. In my mind, STEM fields address those questions in a number of ways, but most importantly, give you the tools to think critically about any type of problem you’ll encounter in life.”

2021 indiana community of the year!

The Indiana Chamber of  Commerce selected Greater Lafayette as the winner of its 2021 Community of the Year Award