The topic du jour for education is STEM, the abbreviation for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The reason for the focus is illustrated simply by the future demand for jobs within the four topics; projections by the U.S. Department of Education anticipate careers in STEM will increase exponentially this decade. Biomedical engineering positions alone are expected to jump by 62 percent.
What’s lacking in the growth is interest from students to pursue those positions; more statistics from the department indicate 16 percent of high school seniors express any interest in STEM careers. The issue, simply put, is the boring reputations tied to those fields, as well as a strange sense of pride expressed for not understanding mathematic or scientific concepts.
That’s what makes experiences like the one Centennial Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Nicole Bunger just got back from so important. Bunger spent about a week in June at space camp in Huntsville, Ala., and she said the experience will help get her students interested in those topics for this school year and beyond.
Bunger, who is from Gilbert, was one of approximately 100 people from 27 different countries to participate in her session of the Honeywell Educators at Space Academy program hosted at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Alabama. Bunger and her fellow space campers completed numerous tasks that encompassed astronaut training and several classes that focused on the aforementioned STEM topics.
“It was long days and hard work, but it was a lot of fun,” she said.
The fun came from the astronaut training experiences, especially the shuttle mission simulation. Bunger said she served as the mission commander, and added her team was the only one to land the shuttle on the simulated runway.
She even got to take home a pretty cool memento from the trip: an astronaut’s flight suit with her name on it. She expects her students will be pretty keyed up when they get a look at her suit.
One of the program’s purposes for Honeywell is to stoke interest in the STEM subjects. Pratibha Poswal, Honeywell Hometown Solutions communications specialist, said the program has worked with 2,176 teachers in its 10 years of existence, which in theory means the program has reached 2 million students worldwide.
The 2,176 teachers who have gone through the program earned their way in by completing a string of essays meant to determine the teachers who can take advantage of the experience the most.
“We really try to see if the teacher is willing to go above and beyond to educate their students,” Poswal said.
Although elementary teachers like Bunger have qualified for it, Poswal said Honeywell usually goes for middle school teachers because their students are on the precipice of deciding what subjects they want to pursue in their future.
The idea is to catch the students while they’re young and direct them toward fields emphasizing math and science. It won’t be that long until those students start doing more than using the technology around them.
“They are going to be the ones inventing technology,” Poswal said.
It goes back to making STEM subjects palatable to students, or at least showing what makes them interesting in the first place. For Bunger, doing so will include implementing projects like launching rockets with Alka-Seltzer for fuel and a few tips on how to better engage students.
Learning those lessons, as well as receiving the fun first-hand experience, fit right in Bunger’s wheelhouse given her excitement about math and science. And the totality of the experience has added more depth to her knowledge of those subjects, which should help her students as well.
“We have to be experts in everything, so the more experience I can get, I can be a better teacher and get my students more excited about (math and science),” she said.
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