Hundreds of local students are preparing for the Quartz Hill High School STEM Expo set April 15 at the campus, 6040 West Avenue L. The event, open to the public, takes place from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. (official judging from 3 to 5 p.m.) and will award prizes to the first-, second- and third-place winners in each of seven categories: Environmental and Agricultural Innovation, Invention, Reverse Engineering, Robotics, Rube Goldberg, Science Fiction and Scientific Inquiry. Winners will advance to the district STEM Expo scheduled later this year.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is fast becoming one of the nation’s most sought-after classroom curriculums as educators from the local, state and federal levels continue to sound the call for more young, budding scientists and engineers. So far, the Quartz Hill STEM Expo has attracted more than 170 individual and group entries, totaling about 300 participants. Organizers want another three-dozen or so professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to serve as judges for the event which is part of the nation wide on-going push to have American youth perform better in the sciences and also to foster more interest in this subject once students enter college.

Zach Mercier, assistant principal at Quartz Hill High, said the program has provided great opportunities for students to learn about the many sciences—particularly engineering—which has a famous legacy in the Antelope Valley or “Aerospace Valley” which is home to some of the world’s most prestigious aeronautics/engineering firms such as Boeing, Lockheed-Martin and Northrop-Grumman.

“Resulting directly from our LCAP (Local Control Accountability Plan) community forum, the opportunity for community members to both participate and observe what is happening at Quartz Hill High School was heard loud and clear,” Mercier said. “We at Quartz Hill High are opening up many opportunities for community members to do so. Our STEM students are doing some amazing things.”

STEM Summer Bridge Program

This summer, from June 15 through July 19 (Monday through Thursday), a STEM Summer Bridge Program will take place at the Antelope Valley College Palmdale Center. The program will introduce to incoming and current Antelope Valley College students opportunities to improve their math skills. The program and materials will be free and were funded by a Hispanic-Serving Institution Title V STEM Grant. A maximum of 48 students will be accepted into the program and will receive advisement on AV College STEM programs and also gain assistance with their educational choices. The program is presented as an opportunity to build connections with AV College faculty and staff, and secondary school STEM students will have the chance to meet with college students already taking STEM-related courses. Guest speakers will also be part of the program.

In January, Gov. Jerry Brown made STEM education a top priority in his proposed 2015-16 state budget. Under this budget, all K-14 education spending will see a $7.8 billion increase, representing a hike of about 12 percent. The new budget will also include $1.1 billion to support the implementation of Next Generation Science standards and Common Core Math and English Language Arts standards, as well as new English Language Development standards.

In another nod toward STEM education, Brown signed into law last fall AB 1764, a computer science bill that allows school districts to award students high school credit for one math course provided they successfully complete one UC/CSU-approved computer science course. The bill applies only to districts that require more than two math courses for graduation.

“California is losing ground in producing the next generation of computer scientists needed to meet growing technology workforce demands in the state,” said Christopher Roe, president and CEO of CSLNet (California’s STEM learning network). “I applaud the governor’s decision to sign this important legislation because it helps to reverse a troubling trend of having a shortfall of young people entering the fields of science and engineering.”

STEM education received a big legislative boost in 2007 with federal passage of the America Competes Act which addressed concerns that the nation may not be able to compete economically with other countries because of an insufficient investment in science and engineering research. The act authorized increased funding for the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology laboratories, and the Department of Energy. The Department of Commerce in 2012 reported that STEM research careers will be some of the best-paying fields and have the greatest potential for growth in the early 21st century.

CSLNet builds partnerships

CSLNet has tried to follow these federal directives by establishing a statewide curriculum designed for all students and will, hopefully, foster strong partnerships that create a “lasting impact.” CSLNet wants to utilize STEM as a component of continuous, lifelong learning and to instill in youth the idea of “bold problem solving” with the early support of technological experts as well as from their peers. CSLNet believes that for California to maintain its position as a leading innovation-driven economy in the 21st century, students must be equipped with the skills and experiences that will prepare them to be leaders in the state’s robust economy (the world’s eighth largest economy). California reportedly has almost 1 million STEM jobs—accounting for more than 13 percent of the nation’s overall STEM-related workforce—but students taking classes that feed into these subjects are not performing well.

A study conducted in 2011 by the National Assessment of Education Programs placed California among the lowest five performing states in terms of student proficiency in math and science. As well, the report found “dramatic” achievement and opportunity gaps between African American and Latino students compared to their White and Asian American counterparts. Girls and young women remain underrepresented, the report explained, in most STEM academic fields and careers. STEM jobs are expected to grow by 19 percent over the next decade, nearly twice the rate of non-STEM positions.

In September 2013, the State Board of Education (SBE) voted unanimously to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for California public schools K-12. The NGSS was launched to update school curriculum and equipment to match the latest scientific knowledge and technology. Within this objective is the incorporation of an understanding of science and engineering practices into instruction by using “project-based” learning and other instructional strategies. The SBE says the challenges of integrating these new strategies throughout all grade levels will be considerable, because they must be merged across multiple subjects and disciplines to create “unique opportunities” for teaching and learning statewide. The NGSS plan is designed to achieve dramatic and necessary transformations in how science will be taught in every school. In 2010 the SBE adopted the Common Core State Standards in math and science which are designed to encourage more student participation in STEM programs.

These new STEM directives almost immediately began to take hold in the Antelope Valley. Presently, the Antelope Valley Union High School District (AVUHSD) has six career academies, all of which include a STEM component. Green Enterprise at Antelope Valley High School offers pre-engineering and business. Highland High offers crime scene investigation. At Knight High, students can learn digital design and engineering. Littlerock High features agricultural and environmental science, and the Palmdale School District itself has a Health Careers Academy and the Falcon Academy of Sustainable Technology. STEM career pathways are also available at Lancaster and Quartz Hill schools, while instruction in automotive technology can be found at Highland, Littlerock, Quartz Hill and at Desert Winds high schools.

‘Aerospace Valley’ informs teachers

In the “Aerospace Valley,” high school and middle school teachers and counselors often visit local businesses/industries to experience first-hand the potential job opportunities available for STEM students. These visits are said to expose secondary teachers to “real world” workforce experiences, thereby allowing them to transfer this knowledge back to the classroom.

Antelope Valley College and the AVUHD collaborated in 2006 to establish a college prep program—SOAR (Students On Academic Rise)—to introduce high school students to college preparatory programs with an emphasis on math, science and pre-engineering. There’s even a SOAR High School that incorporates a STEM focus, while the SOAR Prep Academy (a middle school within the Academies of the Antelope Valley charter) delivers “Gateway to Technology” (GTT) modules including engineering design and modeling, automation and robotics, energy and the environment as well as science and technology. Eastside and Littlerock high schools introduced biomedical sciences in 2013.

The GTT and Project Lead the Way (PLTW) programs reportedly have had great success in local middle schools, while the Palmdale Aerospace Academy (TPAA)—on the site of the old Cactus School—is the result of a joint venture between the city of Palmdale, the Palmdale School District and the AERO Institute. The academy has, since 2013, served seventh- to ninth-grade students, then added a sophomore class last year and expects to add a junior class in 2015. This year finds more than 500 students enrolled, all of whom are on a STEM career pathway that could lead them to stable, well-paying careers. The TPAA focuses on a STEM curriculum with a goal of improving opportunities for today’s youth to design, create and to explore new ideas of which administrators attest can be accomplished by “…providing an institution which will have the natural, maturing skills of today’s youth for tomorrow’s future.”

A PLTW program was also introduced two years ago in the Lancaster School District, beginning with STEM academies at Discovery School and Endeavour Middle School. In 2012, the GTT program was made available to every Lancaster middle school.

At Discovery School, students design 3D figures on laptop computers using advanced software. They also build and program robots and study rocket design. One fourth-grade project there saw students create a model of a sheep watering trough that sounded an alarm and lit a bulb when the water was low. Discovery School, like Endeavour Middle School, took its name from the Space Shuttle program and finds its students visiting many Southland colleges and universities such as Pepperdine, Cal State Northridge, Cal Poly Pomona, Occidental and USC to learn about possible courses they may take, to get a glimpse of college life and to learn what may be expected of a future science or mathematics major on those or at any other campus.

In 2013, Joe Beckam of the National Defense Education Program visited Discovery School and said, “Of the 30 students enrolled in a fifth-grade class, 28 told the teacher that they intend to have a career in engineering or science when they grow up. This observation in an indication of a reversal of what we heard three or four years ago that some parents of [such traditionally underserved] students were not very supportive of a college education for their children. This was a very inspiring visit.”