Science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — teachers engage their students by using real-world problems and giving them the tools to solve them.
At schools across the state, students learn about latitude and longitude by helping NASA map the surface of the moon; they learn the math and chemistry behind biofuels, then build an engine in technology class that runs on recycled cooking oil; and they study the wings of birds as part of a project to design more aerodynamic airplanes.
This integrated model of teaching STEM disciplines is exactly what educators say will raise America's global profile and open career paths for American students.
"Reaffirming and strengthening America's role as the world's engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation is essential to meeting the challenges of this century," President Obama said last year in announcing $260 million in funding to improve STEM education.
The funding is meant to help reverse America's current inability to produce enough STEM-trained graduates, something Obama attributes in part to a "disconnect between the skills learned and the skills needed."
Over the last generation, America has slipped from No. 1 in the world to No. 12 in producing college graduates, according to The College Board; and the dropout rate for students initially interested in STEM disciplines is twice what it is for other subjects, according to a 2010 survey by UCLA.
Meanwhile, jobs that require a science, math or engineering background are expected to grow at a far faster rate than other jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. In fact, workforce projections by the U.S. Department of Labor for 2014 show that 15 of the 20 fastest-growing occupations will require significant STEM training for job-seekers.
"Even as jobs requiring STEM grow, more students are choosing not to major in these areas," NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira said. "We need to increase student interest in science, technology, math and engineering and at the same time motivate and excite our students to pursue STEM and high-tech careers."
NYSUT has been in the forefront of advocating for the type of hands-on STEM education Washington is now championing, said Neira, who leads the union's Research and Educational Services. A prime example is NYSUT's sponsorship of SEMI High Tech U.
That program, with its technology company partners, immerses teachers in hands-on learning in semiconductor, nanotechnology and renewable energy practices.
Programs like SEMI High Tech U further encourage districts to expand professional development opportunities and to create ways for teachers to work together.
"If you want teachers to collaborate, you have to give them the time to develop integrated lesson plans and create a team dynamic," Neira said.
New York's $696 million Race to the Top grant will help expand STEM education, especially for students in low-performing schools and for female students who are often underrepresented in STEM fields.
NYSUT extended its commitment to STEM integration this summer as a sponsor and organizer of the state's first STEM Institute, held at SUNY Oswego in conjunction with the New York State Technology Education Association, the Association of Mathematics Teachers of New York State and the Science Teachers Association of New York.
The institute helps put New York on the cutting edge of the push to integrate the STEM disciplines, said Christopher Monahan, a retired math teacher from Niskayuna schools in Schenectady County and president of the state math teachers' association.
Monahan said students' perspectives of math change radically when they see the application of what they are learning. "It makes all the difference in how the students perceive the challenge in relation to themselves and their future careers," he said.
Technology education in New York is entering a "golden age," according to Jan Stark, a technology teacher at Port Jervis High School and president of state Technology Education Association.
"More and more, math and science teachers have come around to thinking the way Chris Monahan thinks. As a result, they're starting to work with technology teachers, which exponentially enhances what we are able to accomplish in the classroom," said Stark, one of the primary organizers of the STEM Institute.
The 150-plus participating teachers shared lesson plans for teaching math and physics via rollercoaster design, for engaging girls in science, for introducing students to bio-engineering, and for working with NASA to explore the surface of Mars.
Terry McSweeney serves as NYSUT's liaison to several statewide STEM organizations and helped coordinate the event. She said the quality of the presentations — mostly by practicing New York teachers and university professors — ensured the success of the inaugural STEM Institute. Another conference is planned for next summer.
"When you can engage teachers and get them excited," McSweeney said, "you know they'll take that back to the classroom and get their students excited as well."
Greg Munno is a freelance writer from Auburn.