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Dec. 5, 2011 11:01 am

STEM graduation rates show uphill battle with math and science in School District

This story is part of a series produced by Technically Philly. It is published in support of Teach for America’s 2012 education workshop series Greater Philadelphia: Innovation in Education. The series will run daily Dec. 5-9. Updated, Dec. 5, 12:26p: Added total number of students graduating from 2005-2010 period, and total number of District enrollment […]


This story is part of a series produced by Technically Philly. It is published in support of Teach for America’s 2012 education workshop series Greater Philadelphia: Innovation in Education. The series will run daily Dec. 5-9.

Updated, Dec. 5, 12:26p: Added total number of students graduating from 2005-2010 period, and total number of District enrollment to compare with STEM results; Corrected Womack’s title at America21 Project.

Last week at Drexel University, public school student teams kicked-off a five-month regional challenge to develop an underwater robot.

Students will prototype and engineer their robots until March of next year, when they’ll compete regionally for a slot at the second annual National Sea Perch Competition in Virginia.

Greater Philadelphia: Innovation in Education
Application deadline: December 16

Teach for America, in partnership with Technically Philly, will be hosting an invite-only series of education innovation workshops in 2012 intended to inspire the creation of actionable nonprofit and business ventures to impact education. TFA is looking for a cross-industry pool of applicants but is encouraging Philadelphia’s entrepreneurial technology community to get involved. Mention that you saw the workshops on Technically Philly in your application.

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At a local level, the competition is intended to show off the talent of students in the School District of Philadelphia and other regional public schools who spend hundreds of extracurricular hours building state-of-the-art robots with the help of dedicated teachers and industry mentors.

Teams gather around an indoor swimming pool, drop remote-controlled robots into the water, and are challenged to perform specific underwater tasks, like stopping the flow of a simulated leaking oil well, or propelling through a series of hoops.

“If people came to one robotics competition, they would be floored that our students do this,” says the District’s STEM Coordinator Kendrick Davis.

Advancing the priorities of math and science initiatives is a focus for Davis and his small team in the District’s division of College Readiness and Accelerated Programs. But the Sea Perch competition is launching at a time of great uncertainty for the school district’s education initiatives related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM.

Despite an aggressive federal push to prepare students for 21st century jobs, the School District’s perceived lagging prioritization of math and science education was amplified this summer by a budget crisis that is tearing down fledgling and disparate STEM efforts, leaving concerned citizens and stakeholders to move outside the system to fix the problem. Without improvement, they say, Philadelphia will have a hard time assembling a 21st century workforce that can rely on math, science and technology skills.

“You have large swaths of the city that don’t have a bridge for their children into the 21st century.”
- Chad Womack

According to a new report obtained by Technically Philly, less than 1,000 students are known to have graduated from college in the fields of science, technology, engineering or mathematics between 2005 and 2010.

About 13 percent of School District graduates earn four-year degrees in a STEM-related field. The statistics are on par with national averages: between 2003 and 2007, 15% of bachelor degrees were awarded in STEM-related fields, according to a report from the Business-Higher Education forum [PDF].

The numbers are discouraging when considering the racial breakdown of awarded degrees compared to the District’s total enrollment of 146,000. Less than one percent of African-American students — who make up more than half of the District’s enrollment — graduate high school and go on to earn college degrees in a STEM major.

The percentage of degree earners who are Asian or white are more than double their percentage share of total District enrollment.

Education reformers and technology industry leaders involved with STEM education interviewed for this series found the racial disparity alarming, given its impact on the lives of students and the regional and global consequences of a technologically-untrained workforce.

“At a level where it’s left to a single percentage point, you have to round to zero,” says Chad Womack, a black science and technology entrepreneur, who is Principal and Managing Director of the America21 Project, a Philadelphia nonprofit focused on empowering urban centers and communities through STEM education and workforce development.

“It means that the School District of Philadelphia doesn’t make a difference in terms of a student’s ability for post-secondary success in STEM.”

The School District did not return several phone calls and emails for comment on STEM education priorities.

The draft report — put together by the School District’s Office of Accountability and provided to Technically Philly by an anonymous source close to the report — tracked 846 students known to have graduated from a four-year or two-year college in a STEM field between 2005 and 2010. Those STEM degree earners were tracked out of a pool of 7,058 students who graduated a two-year or four-year college during that period.

“In essence, you have large swaths of the city that don’t have a bridge for their children into the 21st century,” says Womack.

Complicating the issue, consequences of the District’s summer budget crisis are not yet clear for extracurricular STEM programming in the district, which is intended to increase graduation rates and interest in STEM education.

Just a year after a team from Central High became the first Philadelphia group to ever make the finals in the national Boosting Engineering Science and Technology (BEST) robotics competition, the District forfeited its eligibility for the prestigious contest, one of three extracurricular competitions that inspire interest in technology outside of the District’s classroom math and science programming.

With consolidation rampant across the district, the budget crisis led to the elimination of a well-connected robotics coordinator that oversaw the District’s participation with BEST, which also led to the merging of two District STEM offices. The surprising developments left remaining STEM coordinators unable to meet program deadlines. As a result, 25 schools and about 450 students will be excluded from the BEST competition this year.

There’s never been a central office for STEM activities, which has historically limited its ability to plan or to lobby math and science policy across the district.

And yet, despite a perpetual stagnation, unlikely and inspiring advocates for STEM continue to fight inside of and outside the school system.

Before he started working at the School District of Philadelphia as part of a $3.8 million federal grant in late 2009, Davis was putting the finishing touches on a mechanical engineering degree from Temple University and the nuances of the commencement speech he was asked to give that year.

With such a solid resume, Davis could have gone anywhere, like following his dreams of aerospace engineering or working for the Department of Defense.

But he chose a career in education because of the math and science roots that he traced back to his hometown of Pittsburgh. Having grown up in a neighborhood not unlike those that surround Temple, he also wanted to help bridge the racial divide that faces minority students who pursue STEM careers.

“You can see the value of a black male student having a black male teacher. The students know you came from the same place they come from,” he says.

The six-year grant that employs Davis, GEAR UP — the brainchild of Philadelphia congressman Chaka Fattah (D-PA), which is intended to improve student college preparation in the district and across the nation — has had its share of criticism since it was enacted in 1999.

A 2006 report from Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit dedicated to local educational policy found that though the School District’s GEAR UP program met its goal of improved college awareness, it failed to prepare students academically for college [PDF].

GEAR UP’s extracurricular STEM education initiatives helped the program save face. According to the report, those initiatives were successful in improving math scores for enrolled students compared to their district counterparts. The author of that report declined to comment on the findings.

The results are evidence of a thread of hope that advocates weave: not only is STEM crucial for the global and urban economy, the field of technology resonates with students in substantial and impactful ways. For the many involved, it is a beacon in the storms of urban renewal and education reform.

But in Philadelphia, STEM education faces difficult obstacles, say many near to the issue.

READ THE ENTIRE ‘STATE OF STEM’ SERIES

Part 1 of this series: STEM graduation rates show uphill battle with math and science in School District
Part 2 of this series: Lack of citywide STEM education vision leaves Philly’s skilled workforce in jeopardy
Part 3 of this series: State and District math and science policies leave gaps in competitive STEM curriculum
Part 4 of this series: Citizens work alongside the school system to strengthen District STEM

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Brian James Kirk

Brian James Kirk is a cofounder of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. Previously, Kirk was Web Editor of PlanPhilly, an independent online news resource covering planning and development issues in Philadelphia, and a freelance writer and designer. He resides in South Philadelphia.

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