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Perspective | STEMwork empowers teachers to bridge industry gap helping students become future-ready

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Katherine Glover, an AP Biology teacher at Chase High School in Rutherford County Schools, collaborated with her students and a Baylor College of Medicine researcher to tackle a complex medical issue. Her class sought to conceptualize a treatment for Huntington’s disease at the molecular level.

According to the Mayo Clinic, Huntington’s disease is a genetic condition that results in the progressive destruction of brain cells. The onset typically begins when people are in their 30s and 40s. Glover helped students gain valuable research and problem-solving skills by incorporating multiple AP Biology concepts and lab practices in the design of her project-based learning (PBL) unit, “Hunting the Cure for Huntington’s Disease.”

Glover is one of 64 educators who completed the 2022-23 STEMwork professional learning institute. The Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership (KFP) at N.C. State University launched STEMwork in 2021 to bridge the professional worlds of education and industry. The blended (online and in-person) program supports North Carolina K-12 teachers in establishing and sustaining education-industry partnerships with local STEM employers. Educators learn a framework for taking those partnerships into the classroom through PBL. 

“Prior to STEMwork, I had very little experience with PBL. My class projects were less open-ended and did not have the real-world applications and community involvement that I so desired for my students,” Glover said. “STEMwork has shown me the importance of seeking industry professionals who can work with students and help them explore learning in tangible contexts. It has also shown me the importance of allowing students to come to their own conclusions when solving problems.”

The need for skilled workers

In today’s rapidly changing economy, students must develop essential skills like collaboration, communication, and critical thinking to succeed in future work. The 2022 N.C. Department of Commerce Employer Needs survey shows that 81% of employers report experiencing difficulty hiring. These employers cite a lack of applicants and applicants’ lack of basic employability skills as the top two barriers to hiring workers. 

As a result of this growing demand, Gov. Roy Cooper established NC Job Ready. This statewide workforce development initiative aims to fill the career pipeline with skilled workers. STEMwork addresses this need and equips educators with the tools to foster meaningful industry connections that help fuel the workforce with local talent. 

As part of her STEMwork unit, Glover’s students completed tasks like solving Punnett squares, running a gel electrophoresis to analyze DNA, and processing data to form conclusions. The goal was to diagnose a hypothetical patient and determine the approximate age at which the patient would begin to show signs of Huntington’s disease. The students then created their own treatments for the disease.

To guide their work, a Baylor College of Medicine researcher discussed current research and treatments for Huntington’s disease. The researcher evaluated the students’ recommendations and gave them feedback. Glover is part of a collaboration between science teachers in her school district and doctoral students at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX. She said learning how to create PBL curricula through STEMwork helped her transform this existing industry partnership into an exciting project for students.

“The biggest benefit of STEMwork was learning how to create a PBL project step by step,” she said. “STEMwork guides participants in identifying standards that align with the goal of a project, creating timelines, grouping students, scaffolding instruction, and implementing soft skills.”

Glover’s hands-on approach to teaching biology demonstrates how PBL can foster critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration while providing students with practical skills they can apply in future careers. Partnerships between educators and industry professionals are an effective way for schools to provide students with opportunities to develop career-ready skills and explore career pathways.

The STEMwork advantage

KFP alumni receive facilitator training and lead small groups of  STEMwork Scholars through the course. Scholars gain an understanding of local industries, STEM careers, and workforce needs. They then learn how to bring this new understanding and perspective to their students through effective PBL units. Scholars design and implement their units through industry immersion experiences, online instructional modules, feedback from facilitators, and collaboration with fellow team members.

They get behind-the-scenes experience in various industries like textile plants, construction companies, and cold storage warehouses. Last year, educators in the west toured Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel & Casino Resort and hiked through the Pisgah National Forest with the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards. In the eastern part of the state, educators observed the manufacturing of military and police apparel at Spiritus Systems in Aberdeen and toured a worksite with Barnhill Contracting Company in Fayetteville. 

Exposure to local industries enables teachers to articulate to students the opportunities and skills required for those careers, ultimately contributing to strengthening the workforce pipeline in their local communities. So far, STEMwork has served 130 educators in 24 counties. It’s connected educators with 25 STEM industry host sites statewide and impacted approximately 6,000 students. 

DaChelle Gupton, a STEM teacher at Wellcome Middle School in Pitt County Schools, said STEMwork taught her the value of education/industry collaboration. Because of STEMwork, Gupton said she felt more confident contacting industry professionals and inviting them to a school STEM night. 

“STEMwork has shown me how to better prepare my students for future careers because I know specific skills that employers are looking for,” Gupton said. 

KFP is currently recruiting its next cohort of STEMwork Scholars. Interested teachers can visit to register.

Amneris Solano

Amneris Solano leads strategic communication and public relations for the Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership at N.C. State University. She has over a decade of experience directing communication for nonprofits and educational initiatives. Originally trained as a journalist covering education, government, and breaking news in eastern North Carolina, she has a passion for storytelling and strives to amplify diverse voices. She holds an M.S. in Communication from N.C. State University with a focus on communication campaigns and social change.