Gazette opinion: Billings plants seeds for growing STEM

2014-04-27T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Billings plants seeds for growing STEM The Billings Gazette
April 27, 2014 12:00 am

What do you get when you combine science, technology, engineering and math all in the same lessons and add hands-on exercises that challenge students to think critically and solve problems together?

Kids who are excited about learning. Kids who are figuring out how science, technology and math work together. Billings already offers popular STEM classes at the Career Center.

Our elementary schools are in dire need of STEM innovation. They are using out-of-print science textbooks published in 1996.

The schools have a plan to boost elementary science classes. Over the coming four years, the district wants to introduce Project Lead The Way lessons at every elementary school.

“We’re here about partnerships,” Superintendent Terry Bouck told a group of business leaders and other community members gathered at the Career Center Tuesday. “We’re starting this at the elementary schools next year. We need help.”

The plan is to start next year with a pilot group of five schools. Arrowhead, Bench, Beartooth, Miles Avenue and Washington schools were selected based on their applications.

This is “teacher driven,” said Cheryl McCall, principal at Beartooth.

Staff at each school has agreed to participate and each school’s technology committee has decided to allocate part of next year’s funding to tech needs in the Project Lead The Way lessons. Two teachers at each school volunteered to spend a week of August training at the University of Montana in Missoula and to train their colleagues to teach Project Lead The Way when they return to Billings. Finally, each classroom teacher has agreed to teach units of this program during the school year.

PTA groups have committed support, such as sponsoring a teacher’s UM training or buying enough iPads for a classroom.

The cost of starting up the program in five schools is $969,819, but continuing it will cost only $2,500 per school per year. The district is covering most of the pilot start-up cost with technology levy money, plus some money for training. SM Energy contributed $10,000, and Stillwater Mining Co. gave $5,000. That leaves $290,566 yet to be raised.

This isn’t a new curriculum. It’s more like revving up the existing curriculum.

Billings needs a STEM boost. Our kids have 18-year-old science books. Last year, 67 percent of our fourth-graders scored as proficient or advanced on the state’s standardized science test and 66 percent scored proficient or higher on the math test. Billings fell below state averages of 70 percent proficiency in science and 67 percent in math.

STEM is where the majority of jobs are and will be. We aren’t doing enough to prepare our students for those careers.

Raising $290,000 for STEM education will be a challenge. The first step is to let potential partners know Billings schools are working to boost science and math education for each and every student. Turning young minds on to STEM is a great investment.

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