Burnet CISD leading students into valuable jobs with math/science-based program

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

BURNET — One of the growing concerns among business and industry leaders is how the United States is falling behind when it comes to producing graduates with science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) degrees. Now, Burnet Consolidated Independent School District is positioning itself to help curtail that assessment.

“Getting kids interested in (STEM) programs has really become a national priority,” said Jim Connor, the BCISD director of secondary curriculum. Recently, the district announced the creation of a pre-engineering magnet program for the next academic year that will give students a chance to pursue STEM studies.

The district is holding informational meetings Feb. 11 and Feb. 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the BCISD administrative offices, 208 E. Brier St.

Connor said youth in small towns and school districts often find they don’t have access to the same programs students in larger districts or cities do. But Burnet school officials didn’t want to accept that they just couldn’t offer those types of programs.

“We started looking into some national programs such as Project Lead the Way, and it was something we could offer here that was already nationally recognized,” Connor said. “We crunched the numbers and found if we could get some kids from nearby school districts, it was something we could do.”

Project Lead the Way already has courses and curriculums designed and ready to go. Connor said the program’s courses are activity and project-based, so students not only study theories, formulas and other facets of STEM, but put those lessons to work.

Jennifer Cahill, Project Lead the Way’s senior director of media and public relations, said the hands-on aspect of the program is only part of it, but it’s something that helps get students interested in STEM studies.

“Project Lead The Way is the nation’s leading provider of STEM programs. We offer integrated, rigorous and relevant STEM programs of study for elementary, middle and high schools,” she said. “Our hands-on, project- and problem-based curriculum excites and inspires students.

“The benefit of adopting PLTW’s programs of study is that our programs are rigorous and real world, having been developed in collaboration with some of the nation’s leading experts in the STEM fields, along with post-secondary and secondary educators and PLTW’s team of professional curriculum writers,” Cahill added.

Under the magnet program, students would attend a regular selection of classes but also get a dose of pre-engineering courses. The plan includes offering associated classes at Burnet Middle School and on through Burnet High School.

“The middle school classes would be basic classes,” Connor said. “We want to get the kids in middle school interested in (STEM). At the high school, we’ll start out with some basic engineering classes the first year. After that, we’ll be able to add some specialized courses.”

Project Lead the Way offers high school courses in aerospace engineering, biological engineering, civil engineering, computer-integrated manufacturing and digital electronics. A student could earn six to nine hours of college credits through the magnet program.

But the real benefit comes even further down the road if a student continues a STEM college and career track. According to the National Governors Association for Best Practices, STEM job holders earn more than 10 percent higher wages than counterparts in other jobs and careers. According to Cahill, the U.S. Department of Commerce puts that number even higher, with STEM workers commanding 26 percent higher wages than their non-STEM counterparts.

And there are more jobs available to those with STEM degrees and training at this point than in other occupations.

According to the Council of Foreign Relations, 60 percent of U.S. employers are struggling to find qualified workers in STEM-related vacancies. There recently has been a lot of coverage of U.S. companies turning to qualified overseas workers to fill STEM-related openings.

This is something Project Lead the Way officials hope students, educators and parents see as one of many reasons to pursue STEM studies.

“Students and parents should care about a high-quality STEM education background because STEM is where the jobs are now and where they will be in the future,” Cahill said. “The United States Department of Commerce estimates that there will be 1.2 million unfilled jobs in science, technology, engineering and math by 2018. STEM jobs will grow at a rate of 18 percent, nearly double the rate of non-STEM jobs.”

The first step toward those careers, however, comes with local school districts, such as BCISD, offering challenging and exciting courses in STEM. Connor said it’s not just something that’s happening at the secondary levels in BCISD.

Burnet offers a couple of robotics programs at the elementary levels to get younger students excited about science and technology, he added.

Project Lead the Way even offers elementary school programs for the younger students if BCISD wants to extend it for those campuses in the future.

The hope of the pre-engineering magnet program is to not only entice Burnet students to apply but draw youth from neighboring school districts as well. Connor said if students outside BCISD apply and get accepted, they would transfer into the district.

But first, Connor and BCISD want to get the word out about the innovative program. He said anyone interested in Project Lead the Way and the pre-engineering magnet program is welcome to attend either one of the information meetings. People also may go to the BCISD website at burnet.txed.net for more information.

“We want to make sure kids in our district get the same opportunities as kids in larger districts,” Connor said. “And this is one way we can do that.”

Go to bcisd.txed.net or www.pltw.org for more information on the pre-engineering magnet program and STEM studies.

daniel@thepicayune.com