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Uptown center will help teachers spark discovery

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Discovery Place, Bank of America and Duke Energy are teaming up to create a center where teachers from across the Carolinas will craft ways to inspire young scientists and engineers.

The Bank of America STEM Center for Career Development will open next spring in the building that now houses the bank’s child-care center, next to the uptown science museum. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, a focus of local and national efforts to prepare students for high-paying careers.

The immediate task is raising $5 million to renovate the building, buy equipment and provide staffing and support, said Discovery Place CEO John Mackay. Duke Energy has committed $450,000.

The goal is making sure teachers have a chance to explore their own ideas, work with state-of-the-art equipment, do research on what works and consult with experts from higher education and industry.

It’s part of a movement to build America’s work force by expanding the skills of those who work with youth – in this case, teachers in public, private and charter schools in North and South Carolina, as well as parents who home-school their children and people who work in museums and science centers.

Plans for the center call for 500 to 600 teachers to do long-term, ongoing study over the next four years. They’ll be trained to test their ideas with students, measure results and adjust when something doesn’t work well.

“We don’t know exactly what the future looks like,” Mackay said Monday. “We’re going to co-invent it with these educators.”

Across the country, employers and politicians have lamented a shortage of workers with skills to fill jobs in the STEM fields. Districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and groups like Discovery Place have been working for years to strengthen those abilities in teachers and students.

For instance, both CMS and Discovery Place already offer summer camps that bring teachers and students together for the kind of hands-on tinkering that feels like fun. A teacher might learn how to teach physics by letting students design a trebuchet from cheap materials – and the kids would compete to see who can fling things the farthest.

The latest thinking calls for employers and universities to take a more active role in shaping K-12 education. In planning the new center, officials looked at similar work being done in such places as the Chevron STEM Center at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Science Center and the Challenger Learning Center in St. Louis.

The Chevron center describes its mission as serving as a “town square” where business, industry, education and government come together to strengthen K-12 STEM classes, partly through teacher training.

The new center in uptown Charlotte has a similar mission.

The space became available when Bank of America decided last fall to close its 10 corporate child-care centers across the country. The Charlotte center on North Poplar Street will close in September. The bank is providing the two-story building, with more than 32,000 square feet, at no charge.

“In order to develop tomorrow’s work force and help our students become the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians, we need great teachers,” said Andrea Smith, Bank of America’s global head of human resources and a member of the Discovery Place board of directors.

Richard “Stick” Williams, president of the Duke Energy Foundation, said he’s especially excited about the chance to reach teachers in rural counties where such opportunities are scarce.

“There are a number of gifted teachers that absolutely make the subjects come alive,” Williams said. “This will position many more teachers to do that.”

Robert Corbin, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools science teacher who is Discovery Place’s vice president for learning experiences, says the center’s vision goes far beyond boosting scores on standardized exams.

“We are about providing creativity and imagination,” Corbin said. “We create wonder.”

Corbin and Mackay said that as educators advance through the program, they will be encouraged to share their expertise in national forums.

“We think this will become a model program that will be emulated around the country,” Mackay said.

Helms: 704-358-5033 Twitter: @anndosshelms
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