Elective seen as path toward more equitable education

Starting this fall, Walker Upper Elementary students will learn about manufacturing, computer-aided design and how to use a laser cutter, 3-D printer and hand tools in their new pre-engineering course.

Nigel Standish, science coordinator for Charlottesville City Schools, said the course will allow students to apply their knowledge in the real world, regardless of the career paths they choose.

“It’s not about what you know. It’s how can you apply what you know,” he said. “How can you problem-solve, organize and strategize?”

Standish said that the sooner students can experience engaging hands-on learning, the more intense that interest is in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

The pre-engineering course curriculum will be the same for fifth and sixth grades this fall. The following year, sixth-graders will be offered a different engineering course.

Standish said that by offering the pre-engineering courses, the district hopes it will encourage students to go into the STEM fields.

“These are very accessible careers,” Standish said. “They are not for math geniuses or for people who’ve been coding since they were 3. These skills can be learned.”

The district aims to build a K-12 engineering path. It already offers engineering courses from seventh through 12th grade. K-4 students are involved in the district’s iSTEM program.

“iSTEM teachers create opportunities for all K-4 students to engage in hands-on, project-based activities based on science and math with some sort of engineering design process,” Standish said. “What specific engineering elective courses allow [is] for students to spend more time doing those types of activities.”

Walker’s engineering courses will be electives because the district wants to provide access to all students, he said.

“As soon as you make some sort of prerequisite, then you’re just eliminating the giant portion of your population,” he said.

At the high school level, students can enroll in Engineering II or III after completing Engineering I or with the recommendation of a teacher. And students wanting to take Engineering IV or V, which are dual enrollment courses, must pass a test.

Albemarle County Public Schools also aims to provide access to engineering courses to all students. Michael Craddock, lead coach for career technical education for county schools, said prerequisites create equity problems.

“One of the things we did early on, we looked at all of our courses and took out prerequisites,” he said. “There were things like computer science was requiring Algebra II. Some engineering classes were requiring some math classes.”

Albemarle schools offer engineering courses starting in sixth grade. Some of these classes include an introduction to coding and programming, technology systems, woodworking, mechatronics and two levels of design classes.

“We expose [engineering topics] to K-5 students in a very integrative way — the opportunity for students to build, make and have hands-on, project-based learning types of experiences,” Craddock said. “And then we have a very deliberate pathway in the middle years, where students can choose to have these experiences in multiple pathways.”

Giving all students access to engineering courses at a young age could contribute to fighting the shortage of minorities in STEM fields. Experts say there’s a shortage of women, black and Latino workers in the STEM workforce.

Standish said the pre-engineering courses won’t solve the shortage, but they could help. Nearly a decade ago, black and Latino workers accounted for 6% and 7%, respectively, in the STEM fields, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

The same report noted “among science and engineering graduates, men are employed in STEM occupations at twice the rate of women: 31%, compared with 15%.”

“I anticipate there to be challenges and struggles in addressing that issue beyond just offering a class, but offering a class is the first step in addressing the issue,” Standish said. “You can’t address it without an opportunity.”

Walker Principal Adam Hastings said he added the course, requested by parents and students, to get students excited about coming to school.

“When we told our fifth-graders we were [going] to offer STEM as an elective, we got a standing ovation from the kids in the auditorium,” Hastings said.

He also wants to give students an avenue that shows them they can be successful learners in other areas, he said.

“We just have to find that song that they can sing,” he said. “I think engineering is a different approach to access greatness in school.”