Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics --- STEM subjects, as they are commonly called --- are the cornerstones of an evolving culture. As medical, technological and scientific breakthroughs continue to advance our society, the economy relies more heavily on industries that specialize in these fields. This has led to an increased demand for STEM-literate working professionals in the job market, and the education system has responded by placing greater emphasis on STEM subjects in schools.
In an attempt to increase the quality of education and raise awareness of STEM issues, many states have enacted programs that foster interest in students and encourage them to pursue careers in these fields. The following are five such initiatives that have been implemented to help teachers in Illinois:
I-STEM, the Illinois STEM Education Initiative, began in 2009 at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign with the mission of “improving access, quality and efficiency of STEM education activities.” The initiative is an outreach effort to create and sustain partnerships between the university and various community organizations that work towards the betterment of STEM education. I-STEM focuses on professional development of science and mathematics teachers, working with other institutes of higher learning to provide research opportunities for students in STEM subjects and hosting community activities to raise interest. For example, I-STEM works with Illinois public schools and the Science Olympiad to organize friendly educational science competitions.
The ISO is the Illinois faction of the national Science Olympiad, an engaging initiative focused on getting students excited about science through competitions at the local, regional and national levels. Teachers and students in Illinois schools are divided into teams within one of eight regional competition sites. Approximately 20 schools compete in each region, and competitions focus on hands-on learning in subjects, like biology, chemistry, physics and engineering. The top students in each region go on to the State Tournament, and those winners compete on the national stage.
The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) is an internationally renowned college preparatory school that enrolls academically talented students in grades 10 through 12 and is making tremendous contributions to STEM education in Illinois. IMSA teaches students through a rigorous, challenging curriculum that is heavily focused on mathematics and science. It is a residential program, though tuition and boarding expenses are provided by the state, and of the 650 students enrolled, 99.5 percent go on to college. IMSA students learn from some of the most accomplished faculty in the country and are even given opportunities to conduct research that further develops their interest in STEM fields. In addition to dedication of its own students, IMSA works to revitalize STEM education across the state by working in school districts to train science and math teachers and help develop innovative STEM programs.
The ISTA is the Illinois chapter of the National Science Teachers Association and currently has over 2,200 members, including science teachers, science supervisors, administrators, scientists, business and industry representatives, and government officials. The ISTA is dedicated to improving the quality of STEM education through professional development and the sharing of resources that can be applied to the classroom. Over 2,000 people each year attend ISTA conferences, which are held to discuss important advances is STEM education and implement effective teaching strategies in Illinois classrooms.
The Science Academy of Chicago is a college preparatory school that emphasizes STEM education, but does so from a highly individualized approach that takes the needs of each student into consideration. The academy aims to create a safe environment where students are comfortable to take risks and go the extra mile in exploring STEM subjects. The faculty set individual goals for students and helps them meet those goals through cooperative learning, individual projects and immersive after-school programs. This special attention that each student receives ensures that their aptitudes in particular STEM fields are recognized early on and nurtured to develop into full-blown skills and career interests.