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STEM in Action: TAF Academy

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Engaging STEM Professionals to Inspire the Next Generation

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STEM jobs are growing, but many students of color are not excited or prepared to pursue them. TAF Academy is engaging STEM mentors to turn the tide.

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As a young math teacher, Ryan Preis felt he was up-to-date on technology developments. Now he’s learning the latest computer applications alongside his students at TAF Academy.

On a weekly basis, computer scientists and engineers bring their programming expertise to the classrooms of TAF Academy, a 6th through 12th grade public school focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), as part of the Teacher-Scientist Partnership (TSP) program. The nonprofit Technology Access Foundation (TAF) partnered with Federal Way Public Schools to open the school in 2008.

Instead of simply learning how to solve equations, Preis’ students are creating websites and software programs to demonstrate how math is used in real-world issues, such as oil trade and energy production.

Sharing a classroom with STEM professionals not only exposes Preis’ students to cool projects and STEM-related careers, it also gives them meaningful contact with successful experts. “It’s the personal connection,” Preis says. “It motivates students to explore their own futures.”

Job growth continues to soar in STEM fields, but the number of students graduating with degrees in those areas is declining—and is particularly lacking among students of color. Meanwhile, public schools continue to face teacher shortages in STEM subject areas, making it a greater challenge to give students the skills they need to pursue those careers.
Programs like TSP, however, are strengthening connections between the classroom and the business world, giving students of color STEM role models with the ultimate goal of inspiring them to pursue college degrees and careers in these fields.

TAF’s program is supported by Washington STEM. The work serves as a model for bringing industry knowledge into the classroom and increasing opportunities for students from low-income homes to build skills and enthusiasm for real-world challenges in STEM fields. STEM professionals have been found to increase students’ curiosity about science and technology as well as their content knowledge in STEM subject areas.

TSP also reshapes the traditional career day concept to meet the needs of today’s schools. The STEM professionals—who range from Microsoft employees to scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center—interact with students and teachers on a weekly basis, both in person and online. Depending on the amount of time they can volunteer, the professionals might be involved in writing curriculum, attending student exhibitions, or teaching a computer science course.

Instead of just listening to someone describe his or her job, students are participating in high-level projects such as designing websites and writing software programs. “Now the students expect to see professionals in the classroom,” says David Harris, the program manager for STEM integration at TAF Academy and a former Microsoft employee.

The partnership continues throughout the summer, with TAF Academy students participating in internships and teachers and STEM professionals continuing to meet and plan for the next school year. Internships will be incorporated into the regular school year, with STEM-related work experience eventually becoming an expectation for all graduating seniors, Harris says.

In addition to giving students access to real-world learning experiences, TSP also has a significant benefit for the teachers. “Teachers feel more confident as professionals,” says Zithri Saleem, TAF Academy's director of education. And in return, the professionals gain insight into instructional strategies and individualizing learning for students. For example, Microsoft computer scientist Michael Pamphlet, who worked closely with Preis’ class, was an integral part of planning a “flipped” classroom model at TAF Acadmey in which lessons are taught online outside of class and homework is done in class alongside peers.

The advantages of the TSP program really hits home with students when they visit the STEM professionals’ workplaces at the end of the year to exhibit the software or video game that they have worked on in class. Microsoft’s computer scientists often comment that the high school students are well ahead of where they were—even in college.

Harris says: “The students get it. They realize, ‘If I’m already ahead of where someone from Microsoft was when they were in college, then I know I can go to college, and I’ll be much further ahead.’”

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