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'It's About Creating Opportunities for Students'

The Port Washington-Saukville School District's STEM program is branching out, adding a robotics team and with a growing advisory board, furthering efforts to better prepare its students for life after graduation.

Recognizing changing trends in technology and employment opportunities, the Port Washington-Saukville School District is branching out its efforts to better prepare its students for life after graduation.

The district is in its third year of being a part of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Forward program — and the initiative's offerings are growing.

"STEM Forward is a technical organization that provides and promotes education outreach programs that emphasize Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics," according to a press release from Port Washington High School Principal Eric Burke. "Their mission is to advance STEM talent in Wisconsin."

Alec Belling, a technology and engineering teacher who works with the STEM program at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, said the educators infuse the strategies of STEM into every genre of class — from math all the way through English and everything in between — focusing on problem solving and "the why" of things.

"We had to get students exposed to these STEM skills — research shows that the jobs these kids are going to be applying for are going to require (these type of) skills," Belling said.

Filling the void

In Wisconsin, manufacturing companies across the state struggle with the "workforce paradox" of not being able to find skilled workers to fill open positions, according to the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce's website — even though the state also struggles with an unemployment rate that sat at 6.9 percent in October, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

"Technical skill opportunities are disappearing from high school," Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Foundation President Jim Morgan said during a seminar focusing on these issues. "The mismatch between preparation and careers is wide — only 30 percent of (Wisconsin's) jobs require a bachelor’s degree or more."

Plus, Burke said, companies are worried about what this shortage will look like in a decade when a good portion of its current workforce retires.

  • Related: STEM students participate in Port Washington's Cardboard Boat Regatta.

"We've heard this from ... manufacturers: that there's not enough people that are coming out that are qualified and there’s just a huge bubble of people that are retiring," he said.

Area companies — recognizing the burden created for both employers and job seekers feeling the pinch of the skilled worker shortage paradigm — now work with the school district to help fuel ideas and organize the STEM program.

"It's an investment for them," Belling said.

  • Related: Two such businesses — Dockside Deli and the Port Washington State Bank — were recently recognized by the Wisconsin School Board Association on its 2012 Business Honor Roll for their commitment to the schools and support of the program.

James Valasek, a team leader of Wastewater Engineering with Rockwell, sits on the STEM Advisory Board and his company also sponsors competitions related to STEM programs.

"(STEM) really applies everywhere, not just in engineering," he said. "It's more of a problem-solving type method that can be used across any kind of work that someone is doing."

Businesses interested in learning more about the STEM Advisory Board can contact Burke at 262-268-5505.

A gender shift?

About one-third of the manufacturing workforce is made up of women, according to an article on Money.cnn.com, and the field's transformation from "labor-intensive," to "high-tech" has more women interested in such jobs.

The STEM program is no exception in sparking an interest in more females to get excited about pursuing such learning opportunities. Belling said the district participated in a Rokenbok program that started at Lincoln Elementary School last year — and had a large female participation.

Rokenbok is a toy company that creates educational toys that fit within the STEM curriculum, according to the company's website.

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"We seek to foster children's love of learning by designing construction toys-based curricula that create ideal environments for STEM learning," according to the Rokenbok mission. "The Rokenbok Educational Foundation is guided by a deep commitment to the science of child development and we produce curriculum that is both fun and provides unending opportunities for growth, creativity, and challenge."

The company donated programmable kits to the elementary students.

"The really cool thing ... there were more female students than male students — which is really awesome to see," Belling said.

Through STEM, the district also launched its first Robotics team this year — an idea fueled by student interest.

"There's just a perfect example — it's about creating opportunities for the students," Belling said, adding that about 30 students signed up for the Robotics team after it was suggested by students who really grasp the STEM concept.

Every sixth- and seventh-grader also has the opportunity to participate in the Project Lead the Way program — a curriculum that is engineering-focused and started before STEM, but fits perfectly into the STEM focus.

"A sixth-grader learning an employable skill — that's incredible," he said.

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