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Educate Oklahoma: STEM

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An exclusive News 9 poll shows Oklahomans believe our students need a better education in these subjects in math and science.

The U.S. Department of Education says only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in math and even interested in a related career.  So, a statewide program called "Project Lead the Way" is trying to grab kids' imaginations early, saying it could transform Oklahoma's economy.

It focuses on learning science, technology, engineering and math, together known as STEM.

It's not your typical classroom lesson. These middle schoolers are testing out the remote-control cars they have built themselves. It is learning that focuses on problem solving.

Studies show students' favorite method of learning is far and away through hands-on projects. That is why educators say programs like project lead the way are so successful.

"Students want time to grapple with a real world problem. They don't want to sit in a desk and listen to a teacher lecture," says Dr. Kathy Dodd, union public schools Associate Superintendent.

Dodd says her district is the first in Oklahoma to implement Project Lead the Way education for every student in the system, kindergarten through 12the grade. It is a program that is exploding in the Sooner State. About 80 different schools, districts and vocational centers across Oklahoma use the curriculum. From specialized charter schools like Dove Academy in Oklahoma City, to larger districts like Norman Public Schools. What sets Project Lead the Way apart from other STEM education programs is its focus on preparing students for a career in the industry.

"It's not just about building a robot for building a robot's sake; It's how does this really happen in business and industry?” says Dodd.

And it starts young. Union kindergartners are using engineering skills to build houses that can withstand heavy winds. They don't always *succeed. But, according to the Project Lead the Way philosophy, that is the point. The philosophy is to let students figure out for themselves what works and what does not. These are skills that will carry the students into their career.

Former Lieutenant Governor Jari Askins, a STEM education advocate, believes it could transform Oklahoma's economy. Right now, she says, out-of-state students are getting the tech and engineering jobs that could be staying local.

"A lot of those positions end up being filled by students coming from other states because we have not generated that base of interest in our own students. Programs like this can grow our own future workforce," says Askins.

Now that state lawmakers cut public textbook funding, Union Public Schools now rely on grants and bond money to pay for Project Lead the Way.

“My hope is that our state government's able to see the value, they listen to business and industry, and they see what STEM’s able to offer our students, and they're able to find a way to invest in stem curricula," says Dodd.

Click here to see if your school or district is using Project Lead the Way.

With funding tight, education foundations from one side of the state to the other are having a positive impact. They are made up of volunteers, parents and business owners who raise money to fund school requests like the one from Charles Page High School teacher Daniel Schmidt.

When Daniel wanted to show the kids how aquaponics works, he turned to the Sand Springs Education Foundation for a $4,000 grant. Groups like the Foundation provide extra resources the kids use that they would not just see in a normal classroom.

University of Oklahoma President David Boren says in a state that lags the rest of the nation in so many key education measurements, Oklahoma's local foundations are the rare bright spot.

“We have more privately-funded local foundations helping our public schools, towns, all across America, then any other state per capita in the nation.  We're number one.” Says Boren.

Today, there are 223 of them across the state, from the largest in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, to the smallest in Ninnekah.

Karen Rose's job is to help get them started, and nurture them along the way.

“And they want to promote excellence, they want to encourage innovation in their community and with the teachers and show support for them in that way,” says Rose.

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