This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington's blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBABuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa or Facebook.com/TheresaHarringtonBANG.

Oct. 8:

STEM is a big buzz word these days, as schools around the country bolster their science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs to spark students' interest.

To compete globally, experts and educators agree, American children need to have a solid foundation in these subjects -- and schools need to acquire the technology to teach it.

Many educators, business leaders and elected officials gathered in Walnut Creek last week for a meeting of the Assembly Select Committee, hosted by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, who is a former English teacher at Concord High. Tom Torlakson, a former science teacher in the Mt. Diablo school district who is now the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, joined Bonilla at the gathering to unveil the findings of a STEM task force.

The task force came up with the following recommendations:

  • Start building the foundation for STEM in early grades through problem-solving and other 21st-century skills. Also, emphasize the value of STEM fields to those who are in underrepresented groups, including women.


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  • Promote STEM instruction in teacher-training programs to help new educators understand the importance of including STEM instruction in an integrated, broad-based curriculum.

  • Develop guidelines for high-quality teacher training to continue an emphasis on STEM throughout a teacher's career.

  • Create a STEM leadership academy for teachers to build professional networks.

  • Establish a central, searchable clearinghouse of STEM partnership programs in public schools, higher education institutions, nonprofit agencies and or industry.

  • Use tests as a way of modeling teaching and learning 21st-century skills.

    Local education leaders already are encouraging STEM in their schools, said some at the event.

    Contra Costa Schools Superintendent Joseph Ovick said the County Office of Education is committed to STEAM education, which includes an "A" for arts and design. STEAM experiences promote flexible risk-taking and creative problem-solving, he said.

    Mt. Diablo district Superintendent Nellie Meyer, who recently moved to Northern California from San Diego, showed her sense of humor when she followed Ovick, who is known for his ease in front of audiences.

    "I am new to town," she said. "But I have heard not to follow Joe Ovick."

    She thanked Bonilla for sponsoring the recently signed bill, AB484, that will eliminate most STAR testing this year and replace it with pilot computer-based testing in new Common Core curriculum standards. The new curriculum is expected to be more rigorous and require a deeper level of learning.

    School districts, Meyer said, need to change their mind sets to understand that Advanced Placement and engineering courses can create a pathway that could really change a student's life. She also emphasized the need to follow models presented by the task force for creating a teacher pipeline and to "train for strands of STEM teachers."

    Meyer lauded Northgate High senior Tory Full, who heads a club called Women in Science and Engineering, or WISE, on the Walnut Creek campus. The superintendent asked for an invitation to a future meeting.

    Finally, Meyer said she was encouraged by the community of other superintendents who are working together with her to promote Linked Learning, which provides work-based classes and technical training to help students prepare for college and careers.

    More information about the STEM task force report is available at www.cde.ca.gov. Click on "Previews STEM Task Force Report." Details about the county's STEAM initiative are available at www.cocoschools.org. Click on "Educational Services," then select "STEAM."

    Staff writer Paul Burgarino contributed to this report.