STEM program opens world of science to students

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Indianapolis is one of just seven cities getting federal help to make math and science classes the top choices of inner city kids. The effort is aimed at getting students the education they need and companies the workers they want.

Harshman Middle School in the Indianapolis Public Schools district is one of nine Marion County schools benefiting from the program. It is already underway, giving students hands-on education as well as one on one inspiration needed to succeed in school college and the workplace.

In a 7th grade engineering class, a student held up her still-to-be-completed assignment.

"We have to make a tennis racquet," she said.

With popsicle sticks, yarn, scotch tape, rubber bands and, as another student pointed out, "a paper bag" - with no apparent concern for appearance. Reporter Rich Van Wyk joked with a pair of students, "that is the ugliest tennis racquet I've ever seen." The students laughed.

It is the science that's surprisingly beautiful to these students.

DeVon Allen explained, "We are learning lift, drag, thrust, pitch" and a lot more.

"STEM" is a curriculum of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math classes intended to point low-income minority and female students to careers they seldom reach. The federal grant will help expand the program in IPS, Lawrence and Pike Township schools.

"We are really excited about this. It is a great opportunity," said IPS Superintendent Dr. Lewis Ferebee.

Kids, starting in elementary school, see how science and how math work. There is hands-on experience, collaboration, and experimentation. DeVon discovered he likes engineering almost as much as playing football.

"It excites me," he said. "I come up with new things, use different materials, putting things together."

Jade Haywood learned science isn't all that bad.

"If I keep being in engineering class and I like it way more here," she predicted, "I probably will be an engineer."

Along with class work, students work with mentors after school and over summer breaks.

Local corporations, IUPUI and community groups are expected to contribute 6,000 volunteers. Simon Rhodes, Dean of the IU School of Science, looked over the educators, corporate and community leaders gathered for the announcement, telling them, "we recognize making science exciting is not just about blowing up pop bottles."

Employers say they can't find the skilled workers they need. David Becker is a successful entrepreneur and president CEO of First Indiana Bank.

"It's really been a struggle to for 35-plus years to find good quality talent here in central Indiana," he said.

Researchers say the program works. A recent IU study of the STEM program used at Harshman and many other schools found that, overall, students have higher ISTEP scores, are more likely to graduate high school with an honor's diploma and more likely to go to college.

The federal grant amounts to valuable resources, but no money. Students will start seeing mentors and other changes in the program next school year.