May 05

Meshing STEM and career tech education

Helping students prepare for today’s highly skilled jobs is a goal of STEM-based education. Such job preparation also has been a longtime aim of career technical education (CTE). Because the two training paths have such similarities, they naturally converge, say educators and policymakers in Oregon, who have been working on meshing the two to better train the state’s students. To find out how that’s going, we contacted Mark Lewis policy director for STEM and CTE in the state’s Chief Education Office.

Q: Describe your mission as the CTE and STEM education policy director in Oregon’s Chief Education Office.

Mark Lewis in Oregon works to bring STEM and career technical education together

A: The mission of Oregon’s Chief Education Office is to build and coordinate a seamless system of education that meets the diverse learning needs of every Oregonian from cradle to career.

Given the evolving social and economic challenges facing our communities and our employers, the Oregon Legislature established the STEM Investment Council to leverage industry and education expertise to better meet our changing talent needs. In my role as policy director for STEM and CTE at the Chief Education Office, I work with Oregon’s STEM Investment Council, our Department of Education and other state agencies, the Legislature, business and industry, and a diverse network of regional partners to develop and implement a comprehensive set of initiatives and investments aimed at increasing student motivation, preparedness, attainment and access to opportunities in STEM and CTE —particularly for those students historically underserved and underrepresented.

Q: Why has Oregon made it a priority to integrate STEM and CTE efforts?

A: The authentic and applied learning approaches of STEM and CTE engage students in similar ways — treating them as creators of knowledge, not just consumers of it. Couple this with interdisciplinary connections and a career-connected focus, and we see incredible impacts on student outcomes and graduation rates, not to mention a fantastic effect on their interest in school.

Furthermore, 15 of the 20 fastest growing occupations in Oregon require the skills developed in most STEM and CTE programs. However, data show that Oregon relies heavily on imported talent to meet the needs of many high-wage, high-demand job openings. These openings often defy traditional categorization and require a whole spectrum of skills and knowledge that go beyond just having a degree or certificate in a particular content field.

Some of these jobs might require a four-year degree, but many require experience and skills that aren’t necessarily gained from a university education. Critical thinking, problem-solving, motivation, collaboration and creativity are the new currency that our employers need to innovate and remain competitive.

Although STEM and CTE programs in our education system traditionally have had different funding sources, delivery structures and societal expectations, they are highly complementary and develop the technical and cognitive skills needed in the changing economy.

Q: How have you accomplished this task? Describe your major successes.

A: With tremendous advocacy from our STEM-CTE Employers Coalition and recommendations from the STEM Investment Council, the Legislature chose to invest in targeted and interrelated initiatives over the past two bienniums. These investments are closely aligned with Oregon’s STEM Education Plan, which was developed through 18 months of collaboration among multiple stakeholders.

Working closely with our Department of Education, we provided support to communities throughout the state to establish a network of Regional STEM Hubs, which are guided in part by the principles of “collective impact.”

These STEM Hubs serve 11 regions throughout the state and convene local partners from P-20 education, business/industry, economic development, community-based nonprofits and civic leaders to drive individual and community prosperity in their regions. They do this by improving access to high quality learning opportunities both in and out of school, focusing on professional development, industry partnerships and community-based education programs.

Q: How have schools, teachers and students benefited?

A: For students and educators, the results are clear. Our data show that students who take two or more classes in a CTE program of study (most of which are STEM-related), graduate at a rate that’s 14 percentage points higher than Oregon’s average. The increase is even more pronounced for our students of color and our students in poverty.

In classrooms with math educators who have participated in our Math in Real Life professional development series — in which teachers design and implement contextual, project-based approaches — students are deeply engaged and excited to come to class. Those teachers are saying, “I’ll never teach math the same way again!”

Moreover, throughout our investments, we strive to create multiple opportunities for educators to connect with one another throughout their profession, as well as connect with STEM employees and out-of-school programs, breaking down the isolation that traditionally exists in our education system.

Q: What have been the major hurdles you have encountered?

A: Most of the challenges have been in breaking down silos within and across the educational ecosystem and in building a sense of shared responsibility that broadens our definition of education to include experiences that happen beyond the school day. Educators and employers share the same beliefs and values about the skills and attitudes mentioned above, but they tend to talk about the strategies and outcomes in very different ways.

The biggest hurdle in bringing CTE and STEM closer together has been addressing the split within our education system that historically has pitted “academic core” subjects with applied, CTE programs.

In a society that emphasizes the importance of college for all and performance on high-stakes, standardized assessments, CTE programs often have been treated as the “less than” option, even when those pathways lead to highly skilled, well-paying and fulfilling careers. In such a system, math and science have been the quintessential academic content areas that, unfortunately, have come to be seen as the domain of those who are bound for a university.

However, the Next Generation Science Standards, with their inclusion of engineering and an emphasis on the practices of science and engineering, are leading to a dramatic shift toward applied learning approaches and multidisciplinary connections. We have seen tremendous synergies when math, science and CTE teachers work together to deepen student understanding through working on problems that are worth solving — not just ones that will be on the next test.

Q: What would you advise other school districts and/or state education departments that might want to explore a similar path?

A: First, it’s important for educators and administrators to visit today’s businesses and industries to get a firsthand perspective of how the world of work has changed and to see how academic standards manifest in the real world. They will also see that the attempt to distinguish between what’s a STEM job and what’s a CTE job is not practical, nor helpful.

Whether it’s precision agriculture, advanced manufacturing, biomedical research, high tech or computing, such industry visits invariably give educators a much richer sense of the world that they are preparing their students for.

Second, provide time and money to create opportunities for math, science and CTE teachers to work together and share their expertise in the co-planning of lessons. At the state level, it’s critical to listen to the practitioners in the field to create policies and investments that transform the system, rather than add unfunded mandates.

But, most important, be mindful of the potential biases in the messages that we send to our students. Be focused on helping them identify, develop and apply their talents in a way that increases their opportunities to contribute, no matter which pathway they choose to pursue.