Arkansas officials on Tuesday announced a $2.68 million program aimed at increasing the number of students studying in high-tech fields by overhauling the curriculum at some high schools and recruiting more college graduates to teach in those areas.
Gov. Mike Beebe and other state officials announced the launch of the STEM Works program that will focus on science, technology, engineering and math in the state's high schools. Beebe said the initiative will help the state's workforce meet the demand for employees in high-tech fields by focusing on those areas earlier.
"We've got to get more folks interested in STEM education in high school so that when they go to college, they're not afraid of engineering, they're not afraid of mathematics, they're not afraid of science," Beebe said in a news conference at Molex Inc.
The first part of the initiative will focus on overhauling the curriculum at state high schools to better prepare graduates to pursue degrees in high-tech fields. One way officials say they hope to do that is by creating "New Tech High Schools," where students are taught practical applications for their classes.
That model is already being used at Cross County High School, where in one class students are taught algebra by applying the equations they've learned to research and compare cellphone providers and argue which is the best.
"Everything is geared around students not having to ask, `Why am I learning this?'" said Matt McClure, superintendent of the Cross County School District. "If we find a way to make it interesting to students and has relevance to students, then they're going to be engaged in their learning and they're not going to be asking why."
The goal of the program is to have 10 high schools signed up by January 2012 to begin implementing that model in the 2012-2013 school year. Officials said they've set a long-term goal of signing up half of the state's high schools within a decade.
The second part of the initiative is UTeach, a program to recruit college students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math to become teachers in those areas. The UTeach program would provide an initial course to participants at no charge.
Interim Higher Education Director Shane Broadway said Arkansas State University, Arkansas Tech University, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and the University of Central Arkansas have volunteered to offer the program on their campuses starting in the fall of 2012.
Most of the money for the program will come from the state, and the AT&T Foundation and Molex each pledged $35,000 to the program at Monday's announcement.
Beebe said the state may need to redirect money to continue the program beyond the pilot phase, but suggested funding it in the future should be a priority.
"I can't sure we can afford not to," Beebe told reporters.
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo