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updated: 9/15/2011 4:58 AM

Palatine Dist. 15 exploring STEM academy

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If Palatine Township Elementary District 15 officials can manage to find the funding, its seventh- and eighth-graders may soon be exposed to a curriculum more focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

The district is exploring the idea of implementing a STEM Academy and Demonstration School at one or all four of its junior highs in an effort to better prepare students for 21st century skills.

"We've always said these kinds of skills are integral in the workplace," Deputy Superintendent Jim Garwood said. "Now more than ever, they're not just good skills to have, they're essential skills."

In researching the issue, Garwood told the board of education that employment in STEM occupations are projected to jump anywhere from 10 to more than 30 percent between 2004 and 2014. However, the number of Americans graduating with degrees in these areas remains flat.

In addition to taking math and science, Garwood said students would take a STEM class that emphasizes problem solving. Popular units of instruction include design and modeling; automation and robotics; energy and environment; flight and space; green architecture; magic of electrons; and science of technology.

It's estimated the first-year cost to implement the program at all four junior highs, a goal some board members urged in order to create equal opportunity, would cost a total of $100,000 for teacher training and equipment. No additional staff would be needed, and expenses would decrease in subsequent years.

Given District 15's deficit spending and limited resources, Garwood recommended seeking donations from local companies and grants to pay for the program.

He also suggested that instead of the district attempting to go it alone, it join Project Lead the Way, a New York-based provider of free, nationally recognized STEM curriculum. The organization also increases the odds of a district being awarded a grant due to its association with various foundations, Garwood said.

While STEM education is more common at the high school level, District 15 wouldn't be the first elementary district to implement it. Mount Prospect Elementary District 57, Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 and River Trails School District 26 also have at least one junior high affiliated with Project Lead the Way.

Board President Tim Millar acknowledged the financial challenges, but said "$100,000 out of a $140 million budget, that doesn't seem like a lot to push the kids ahead."