One overarching theme emerged Thursday at a panel discussion on the importance of STEM-based curriculum: Start them young.
U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a Hoffman Estates Democrat, and many of the 10 panelists gathered at Carl Sandburg Junior High in Rolling Meadows underscored the need to spark an early interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
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"Starting at the high school level is too late," said Vicky King, vice president of Partnerships, Alliances and Girl Initiatives at the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana. "You have to engage them early."
Theresa Busch, assistant superintendent at Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, said early engagement is especially crucial for girls because "by the time they're freshmen, it's not cool to go down that pathway."
Palatine Township Elementary District 15 Superintendent Scott Thompson and Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 Associate Superintendent Nicholas Myers outlined several initiatives officials have implemented including STEM curriculum through Project Lead the Way, Lego League robotics competitions, designating schools as math and science academies and utilizing Northwestern University's Office of STEM Education Partnerships.
Representatives of Motorola Solutions and Northrop Grumman also highlighted a number of grants, internships, scholarships and professional development opportunities that the companies fund to generate more interest in the STEM fields.
Panelists said early STEM education will play a critical role in the future economic prosperity of the country. Duckworth said she consistently hears from manufacturers in the 8th District struggling to find skilled workers.
"We have a high unemployment rate (in Illinois) and yet we have 300,000 (STEM) jobs that are going unfilled," Duckworth said. "We have great, wonderful, bright people graduating from college and high school who could be going down that path. They're just not being steered enough into these types of educational opportunities."