District must provide science, math opportunities for all

Once a week, I quickly skim the Review-Journal to catch up with the valley. But when I read “Southern Nevada schools enhancing focus on STEM offerings” last month, I paused as my heart fluttered with excitement. As an engineering major myself, I was happy to see such support for science, technology, engineering and math education.

Upon re-­reading the article, however, I noticed a trend. Silvestri Junior High School was one of 20 schools to receive a competitive grant, and all the other schools mentioned were private/charter schools. Of the other 300 schools, the article offers only a single line: “Across the district, elementary and high schools have built new computer science and coding courses through grants, with expansion to middle schools coming in 2017.”

This struck me as generic. Computer science and computer­-aided design classes at Green Valley High School were canceled a few years before I started high school, when the teacher left for a more tech­-oriented school. My friends still attending the school revealed no plans to bring the classes back. If such changes were in place, the school would have promoted them to its students.

So why are we spending so much money on specialized facilities and laptops when there are still students without access to any basic STEM classes?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these grants and new facilities are bad. My argument stems from trying to answer the question posed by Jesse Welsh, Clark County School District’s academic manager of innovative learning environments: “We have pockets of excellence, but how do you get that to all of our students?”

The Clark County School District certainly has pockets of excellence. The valley’s network of magnet schools and career and technical academies provide advanced STEM programs, and they are well supported. However, for students interested in STEM, getting into these programs is a gamble. Literally. Due to popularity, admission to some schools is determined by lottery. Private schools are even worse in terms of accessibility, posing academic and financial barriers to entry.

And that’s assuming the student is already interested in STEM. Most students rely on their zoned schools to be exposed to subjects in the first place. If their zoned schools don’t offer any STEM programs, students can graduate without any contact with STEM at all.

I was very lucky to have professor parents who exposed me to engineering and technology from a young age. If I had simply relied on my school’s offerings, or if my family didn’t have the resources to provide me with such experiences, I wouldn’t have been able to attend my dream university and pursue my passions. I don’t think that’s fair. All students should have the opportunity to discover and pursue their interests, not just the lucky or privileged.

The state and district should focus even more on helping every student, not making schools compete for a chance at preparing their students for the future. The concept that STEM is for only the high­-achieving, elite few is misguided. STEM is for everyone, and a lot of students are not being given the opportunity to discover themselves.

A great starting point is “Computer Science for All,” an initiative by the White House to “empower a generation of American students with the computer science skills they need to thrive in a digital economy.” Teaching computer science is a relatively inexpensive way to implement STEM in schools; curriculum is readily available and the only equipment required is a computer lab.

In fact, the district has already participated in this program. Research into the “generic quote” I mentioned earlier revealed a partnership with code.org, an educational nonprofit. Last school year, the district provided training to 649 teachers and introduced 18 “exploring computer science” teachers who taught 1,236 students in elementary and high schools.

This program should be extended to every single elementary school, middle school, and high school in Clark County.

Nevada is behind, but we’re starting to catch up. We need to make sure that everyone is benefiting from progress, not just a few selected students.

Jake Lee, a graduate of Green Valley High School, is a student at Columbia University.

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