AUGUSTA, Maine — One of the signature initiatives of the LePage administration is to encourage Maine students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM initiative. The most recent data indicates they have a long way to go, as more than two-thirds of eighth-graders surveyed in Maine say they have not been exposed to engineering and technology as a career.
“No, I am not surprised at that,” said Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee.
The questions were part of a national math test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, given to the country’s eighth-graders. A recent study by Harvard University ranked Maine second worst in the country for gains in NAEP scores.
Langley said while there are some “very good” outreach programs in parts of the state, overall the teaching of science in the schools has not been bolstered by actual scientists and engineers spending time in schools encouraging students to consider a career in science, technology, engineering or math.
“I have had a conversation with university officials about using the successful model we have at the Beech Hill school in Otis, where professors from Vanderbilt Skype in and hold labs and talk with the students,” Langley said.
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, also serves on the committee. He said there are a number of programs in various schools to take students on field trips to places like the Gulf of Maine Aquarium where they are exposed to scientists and scientific research.
“There may not be a connection by students,” he said. “If there is a perception among eighth-graders that they have not received enough exposure to the STEM fields, to the STEM professions, than we have to do a better job.”
Alfond said there has been considerable discussion among committee members about the importance of encouraging more students to choose a career among the STEM professions. He said it is clear Maine will have a shortage in some of those areas without greater student interest.
“I certainly am surprised at that number,” said Sharon Eggleston, the chair of the new state STEM Council. She is a senior project engineer with Lockheed Martin in Bath and said she has been involved in outreach efforts in Maine schools for 15 years. Eggleston acknowledges that such a large number of eighth-graders saying they have not been exposed to a STEM career is a concern.
“We do bring these experts into the schools. They do talk about what they do,” she said. “But that connection for that student who still has another eight years or six years of school, it’s difficult for them to get that connection.”
Eggleston said one goal she has for the council is to explore what is being done for outreach to the schools and what is working in connecting with students. She said a compilation of best practices will help both schools and businesses that want to help expose students to STEM careers.
Education Commissioner Steve Bowen said the responses by eighth-graders to questions on the NAEP test do raise concerns. He said it is clear that the demand for college graduates in the STEM professions as well as the need for advanced degree-holders in the fields will grow in the future.
“A major concern is how we stitch together all of these efforts into a coherent plan to reach kids,” he said. “We have some great outreach efforts that are under way in our state, but we don’t have them everywhere.”
Bowen said he has been attending Gov. LePage’s job creation meetings across the state and at every meeting there have been business owners and representatives of companies telling him they would like to participate in efforts in the schools. They are often told by schools they have no time for such efforts.
“I had them tell me they had tried to call the schools, tried to volunteer their time, but got no answer,” he said. “Whatever the reason, we have to change the culture at all the schools so they recognize the value to the students to have these scientists and engineers in the classroom.”
Bowen agreed there are some good outreach programs under way, but not in every school. He said all Maine students need to be exposed to careers in science, technology, engineering and math.