STEMH Education Summit at the Boar's Head Inn in Charlottesville

Monticello High School’s health and medical sciences academy director Katina Dudley asked a straightforward question to a room full of educators and life sciences professionals Thursday: How can we excite students about science and scientific careers?

The response was equally straightforward –teaching that is dynamic, engaging and practical.

The workshop at the Boar’s Head Thursday was part of the STEMH Education Symposium, a summit focused on increasing student interest in science, technology, engineering, math and health education in Charlottesville-Albemarle.

Albemarle High School’s math, engineering and science academy director Jeff Prillaman said it’s important to harness the enthusiasm the youngest students have, and to foster that passion as they get older.

“In the first and second grades they are so excited about science, but somewhere along the way they get comfortable sitting in a chair and then taking a test about what they learned,” Prillaman said.  “We’re talking to every teacher in the county about how to change their classroom dynamics, how to [avoid] making everything in the classroom revolve around the teacher.”

It’s this shift in teaching style and philosophy, Prillaman hopes, that will produce the critical and analytical thinking skills the future will require of our students.

“We just want to empower kids to think for themselves.  We can teach them facts, but when every fact is at the touch of your fingertips, why are we teaching facts and not teaching thinking?” Prillaman asked.

“It’s like a cook versus a chef,” Prillaman added.  “A cook can follow a recipe, but a chef can taste something and say ‘this needs a little more of this or that.’”

The workshop brought together representatives from education and industry, and Albemarle County Public Schools superintendent Pam Moran believes this cross pollination is essential for both teachers and students.
“It’s an opportunity for boundary spanning, to cross education with innovative businesses and higher education,” Moran said.  “Teachers are place-bound and the more opportunities that they can have to spend time with innovators, the more opportunities they will have to think about changes we can make.”

Caitlin Corbeil, a manufacturing engineer with the Staunton-based surgical device manufacturer Cadence, echoed Moran’s thinking.

“If we don’t work together, we won’t have the next generation of life scientists,” Corbeil said.

And students who are prepared to work in a field that requires creativity and problem-solving skills, Corbeil said, are more attractive hires.

“We’re looking for practical and theoretical [knowledge] in employees,” Corbeil added, “not people who will sit and be passive.”

But a culture shift in the classroom does not always come quickly.  Since 2001, public school instruction has largely been driven by the No Child Left Behind Act, a federal law that requires each state to administer standardized tests to most students each year.

A common criticism of NCLB is that it results in teachers teaching too heavily to the yearly tests.  

Charlottesville City Schools associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction Gertrude Ivory said that her division is encouraging teachers to broaden their scope of instruction.

“If we get teachers to focus on the teaching and learning and not so much on the testing, we’ll get a better performance outcome with the testing,” Ivory said.

“But there are many teachers who don’t focus on [testing] because they focus on the needs of the students and use the strategies that will give us a better pay off in the end,” Ivory added.  “And consequently, they see higher performance when students take the tests.”

As for the students, Western Albemarle High School junior Mary Swanson enjoyed listening to the collaborative conversation that will shape public education in the future.

“It shows that they care about improvements that could be made and are trying to make the system better,” Swanson said.

One improvement is the push to recruit females into the sciences, and Swanson supports a diverse industry.

“It’s important to have everyone, as many viewpoints in the field, because [the field] involves so many parts of everyday life,” Swanson said.

And preparing students to apply their knowledge practically to everyday life after graduation is foremost in Moran’s mind.

“We’re not just focused on tests that other people give us,” Moran added.  “In reality, the most important thing to focus on is preparing our kids to be great citizens, great employees, and great thinkers.”