Lack of citywide STEM education vision leaves Philly’s skilled workforce in jeopardy

Though it appears that the District is renegotiating a focus on STEM education under new leadership, stakeholders close to the issue say it's bogged down by precedent and budget concerns.

Alliance for Progress Charter student Karizma watches her LEGO robot automatically follow a black line.

Young girl playing with robots

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.

At the Alliance for Progress Charter School, just west of Temple University along Cecil B. Moore Avenue, technology teacher Mary Beth Hertz runs the school’s first all-girl robotics club.

It’s an upstart team, funded by a $640 online donation campaign and Hertz’s own dime, which brought the purchase of a $1,000 robot kit this summer.
On an early evening in October, sixth grader Karizma L. plugged a LEGO Mindstorms robot into an iMac computer and began to fix the ‘bot’s light sensor while Hertz hustled between her and a team of two students working across the room.

“It’s the epitome of what learning looks like.”
– Mary Beth Hertz

After using a kid-friendly software package to program the light sensor by herself, Karizma crouched down beside a white mat nearby and watched as the robot automatically followed a circular black line by comparing the color values of the white and black pixels underneath it.
Karizma gasped and threw her hands up in the air in celebration. “I just followed the instructions!,” she yelled to Hertz, who watched nearby.
“It’s the epitome of what learning looks like. They’re working through a problem. You can see the light bulbs go off,” Hertz says.
It’s a familiar story across public school science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs: children learning the values of problem-solving, the impact of technology and the math and science that make it possible.
STEM education reform could be a powerful way to rejuvenate the urban core of Philadelphia, advocates say, where the loss of manufacturing jobs in the last half-century and the recent global recession have led to an unemployment rate larger than the national average. In September, Philadelphia reported a 10.9% unemployment rate compared to the national average of 8.8%.
And though it appears that the District is renegotiating a focus on STEM education under new leadership, stakeholders close to the issue say it’s bogged down by precedent and budget concerns.

Mary Beth Hertz works with Karizma at an iMac workstation.

As we reported yesterday, the percentage of District graduates who earn four-year degrees in STEM-related fields, about 13%, is on par with national averages.
Across the District, however, less than one percent of black students — who make up more than half of the District’s enrollment — earn college degrees in a STEM major. The percentage of degree earners who are Asian or white were more than double their percentage share of total District enrollment.


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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That could be because students are more likely to succeed in alternative learning environments of special admissions schools like Central High School and Masterman than in neighborhood schools, according to the report on STEM graduation rates from the School District’s Office of Accountability, which we reported on yesterday.
Special admissions high schools account for more than half of the District’s four-year STEM degree earners, while neighborhood high school STEM students were more likely to attend two-year technical schools. Charter schools, like Alliance for Progress, which are independently-run public schools, were not evaluated in the report.
Racial disparity in the success of STEM education runs parallel with a similar disparity in enrollment at special admissions schools. White and Asian students who apply to special admission schools are twice as likely as black and Latino applicants to be enrolled, according to 2010 Research for Action report.
A decade ago, these facts might have only concerned technologists. But today, science, technology, engineering and mathematics issues are gaining mainstream interest and federal backing.
Calling it the nation’s Sputnik moment, President Obama spoke highly of education reform in his State of the Union Address early this year to address the quality of math and science learning.
“If we want to win the future — if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas — then we also have to win the race to educate our kids,” the President said.

“How do you create that new economy? Technology is the medium that is so empowering.”
– Lucy Kerman

On a local level, as part of Drexel University’s community development vision in University City, Vice Provost of University and Community Partnerships Lucy Kerman is helping to envision how technology education can impact a neighborhood plan, preserve history and empower existing residents.
Kerman co-chairs the community-focused portion of Drexel’s oft-writ 2012 strategic plan under new President John Fry, using her experience in a similar role at the University of Pennsylvania during its West Philadelphia Initiatives [PDF]. It was at Penn that she became intimate with education issues, having developed community programming and partnerships for the new Penn Alexander School.
“In trying to solve brain drain,” she says, “one problem is that it’s not creating jobs for the massively unemployed. How do you create that new economy that stretches across high- and low-skill jobs?”


“When we’re talking about giving youth the tools they need, technology is the medium that is so empowering,” Kerman says.
She compares the strong science programs available at Penn Alexander with schools like Morton McMichael elementary, located in the Mantua neighborhood, where she says “the infrastructure isn’t there at all.”
Ensuring that kids have the right skills for the job market isn’t just theoretical. For manufacturers in the region that seek highly-skilled workers, it’s an actionable gain, too.


At the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center, project manager Gary Hines helps small and medium-sized manufacturing companies identify staff competency needs, and coordinates training and education to keep them strong, competitive and growing.
A few years ago, “when companies started saying ‘we can’t find workers, our workforce is aging, and we don’t have anyone to take their places,'” he says the organization started advocating for and organizing around STEM talent development, including outreach to schools in the region.
Efforts to improve STEM education standards in the region have manifested in a number of ways since 2005.
For one, DVIRC has grown its regional STEM compact to a list of 100 signatory organizations that have pledged to help bridge the funding, talent and resource gap between industry and education, by helping to create a framework for industry needs and the educational output of schools.
For DVIRC’s manufacturing slant, that conversation often lands itself in the issues facing the region’s vocational-technical schools. But the STEM issues facing general education public schools are mostly the same.
“All of the things that happened with the District this summer, I think their priorities have shifted from focusing on STEM programs,” Hines says. “There are so many other critical issues going on.”

“It’s about having a citywide vision.”
– Joseph Merlino

It appears that the District is attempting to renegotiate a focus on STEM education.
In early November, Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery presented the District’s new STEM priorities to the Philadelphia Education Fund’s Math + Science Coalition. He stressed a need for a more comprehensive STEM strategy starting at the elementary level, the expansion of extracurricular STEM clubs and the ability to tap into regional resources for teacher preparation, according to a Coalition summary.
It was a departure from the STEM policies of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, “who didn’t want to be bothered with it,” says Chad Womack of the America21 Project, a Philadelphia nonprofit focused on empowering urban centers and communities through STEM education and workforce development.
“In [Nunery], we have someone who does understand STEM,” says Womack, “but he’s left with a $600 million hole in his budget. The question becomes, ‘where do we get the capital to drive STEM initiatives?'”
Joseph Merlino, President of the 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education, who attended Nunery’s presentation, says that despite the sincere picture painted by Nunery, change will have to come from outside of the District.
“Even if he had the resources to do it, there have been very few districts that can pull off improvement on their own,” Merlino says.
“It’s not about the next Superintendent, it’s about having a citywide vision.”


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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