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Truly preparing students for jobs in the 21st century

By Christopher Gergen and Stephen Martin

This spring, approximately 91,000 North Carolina students will graduate from high school. More than three-fourths say they plan to move on to a two- or four-year college or university. But by the time they reach their mid-twenties, trends suggest, only half of them will have earned a college degree.

Alert to similar statistics nationally, the Harvard Graduate School of Education last year published “Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century” – a report that challenges the premise that all students should seek a four-year college degree. It argues that we need to create additional pathways that combine rigorous academics with strong technical education to equip young people with the skills to compete for tomorrow’s jobs (many of which don’t exist yet).

The report led to the launch of the Pathways to Prosperity Network, a collaboration between Harvard, Jobs for the Future and six states (including North Carolina) committed to helping create these alternative learning pathways.

Even before the launch of this initiative, Raleigh-based non-profit North Carolina New Schools was working with government, businesses, and higher education in the development of a network of STEM schools across the state. With the goal of providing high school graduates “the ability to design and communicate solutions to real problems with confidence, ingenuity, and thoughtfulness,” this network of schools provides students with powerful minds and hands-on teaching and learning in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In other words, ensuring students have the skills to compete for tomorrow’s jobs.

Take the Wake-N.C. State University STEM Early College High School located in Wake County on N.C. State’s campus. Opened in 2011, the school focuses around the theme of energy and sustainability. Through a daily seminar, plus three 90-minute courses in small classes, students grapple with fourteen Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century identified by the National Academy of Engineering. They range from making solar energy more economical to reverse engineering the brain to providing access to clean water globally. Over the course of five years, students earn both a high school diploma and up to two years of college credit – and a set of problem-solving skills to compete for this century’s most desirable jobs.

Students at the Early College of Eastern Applied Sciences and Technology (Early College EAST) in Craven County get a deep immersion in aerospace, advanced manufacturing, and security. Through a partnership with the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center at Cherry Point in eastern North Carolina, students have the opportunity to work hands on with the region’s largest population of experienced engineers and scientists.

That exposure is reinforced by a professional engineer on the school’s staff who helps to create a natural bridge to the local engineering community. The school is across the street from N.C. State’s Institute of Aeronautical Technology, affording easy opportunities to connect with professors on real-time problem solving initiatives.

The Northeast Regional School of Biotechnology and Agriscience is the lead school in an emerging statewide network of similarly themed schools. Located on N.C. State University’s Vernon G. James Research and Extension Center in Washington County, the facility is located on 1,500 acres of land at the Tidewater Research Station – whose mission includes “making farming more efficient, productive, and profitable, while maintaining a sound environment and providing consumers with safe and affordable products.”

By connecting students and teachers with a cadre of scientists, hands-on learning opportunities abound for everyone involved. As David Peele, chair of the regional board and president of local company Avoca, Inc. says, “this will be a great resource, beyond just the students who will attend the school. Teachers from this school can lead professional development in science and math for teachers across the region and really have an impact on education in eastern North Carolina.”

In the meantime, students are graduating from STEM-themed schools at impressive rates. Among students enrolled in one of the 30 STEM-focused schools working with NC New Schools, the graduation rate was 95.3 percent (vs. 80.4 percent for North Carolina overall). Of African-American students, 94 percent graduated from STEM schools vs. 68 percent overall. And while not all may go onto four-year colleges, research indicates that’s OK as long as they are equipped with the skills to compete in the global marketplace.

Just as the demands of our workforce are shifting, so must our education system. Fortunately, we have some good models in place to help make our next generation competitive. Now it’s about expanding these opportunities for more students.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, an adjunct professor at Duke University, and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.
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