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Florida renewing STEM commitment to rural communities

Nine out of 10 jobs created in the state before the end of the decade will be in STEM-related fields
  • Students work at a research reserve during an eight-day summer field experience developed by FloridaLearns STEM Scholars.
  • Summer STEM students also worked with teachers at a university research center.
  • Florida students get STEM instruction at a U.S. Air Force civil engineer center.

By 2018, Florida will have 411,000 STEM-related jobs, fourth highest among the 50 states, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And the Florida Council of 100, a non-partisan organization that advises the governor, has estimated that nine out of 10 jobs created in the state before the end of the decade will be in STEM-related fields.

It was good news for most of the state’s children, who live in highly populated regions with diverse educational opportunities. But the forecast for students in Florida’s sparsely populated areas was less sunny: With schools too small to support specialized instructors, rural students did not have much access to STEM education.

So in 2011 the Florida Department of Education used $4.5 million of federal Race to the Top funds to launch the FloridaLearns STEM Scholars. Careful spending left the initiative with a surplus at the end of its inaugural three-year run, leading the state to approve a one-year extension requiring no additional funds. Future funding will be determined by next year.

The initiative creates STEM opportunities for 27 rural and small school districts in the northeast, central and panhandle areas of Florida. In three years of the program, more than 1,000 high school students have engaged in STEM-related activities. Examples include:

  • In the town of Altha, high school juniors and seniors worked alongside company researchers in labs and greenhouses at Oglesby Plants International, a plant supplier and developer of new plant varieties.
  • Students from six districts learned about forensic science while collecting fingerprints, making plastic molds of tire tracks and analyzing blood splatters at a staged crime scene with the Criminal Investigations Unit of the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office.
  • Students in the panhandle region spent eight days at pulp and paper company Georgia Pacific shadowing engineers and environmental managers, learning about operations and working with the AutoCAD drafting program.

“This helps to level the playing field, to give equitable access to STEM across the state,” says Brenda Crouch, program director of FloridaLearns. “If kids aren’t thinking that they’re going to become a physician or an engineer or a computer programmer when they enter college, then it’s more difficult for them to be successful.”

Schools are also using Zoom distance-learning software so multiple high schools can share honors teachers and students can speak with engineers at work sites in New Guinea and Malaysia. Additionally, students have earned software certifications and dual-enrollment credits from institutions such as Florida State University, University of Florida, Santa Fe College and Taylor Technical Institute.

Ralph Yoder, superintendent of the rural 2,800-student Calhoun County School District, says the effort is broadening instruction in Florida’s rural education systems. “It’s very important to provide this so our students can connect what they’re learning in the classroom with practical applications and real-world examples outside the classroom.”