The state of STEM education in South Carolina and what one Lowcountry group is doing to help

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A student works on a math book in a school classroom (Nexstar, file)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- On Monday, November 8, the US celebrates National S.T.E.M or S.T.E.A.M day, a day dedicated to the recognition and promotion of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.

According to assessments administered by the Nation’s Report Card in 2019, South Carolina lags slightly behind the national average when it comes to proficiency in math and science. For Grade 4, 36.33% of tested students were at or above the proficient level in mathematics and 40% were at or above proficient in science. For Grade 8 those numbers are even lower at 28.9% and 28.2%, respectively.

Executive Director for the South Carolina Coalition of Math and Sciences, Tom Peters, said that school readiness is one of the challenges that leads to these stark numbers.

“If you look at school readiness data, if you look at how ready kids are when they enter school, particularly in mathematics, those data are not good,” Peters said.

He added that there is a strong correlation between school readiness and socioeconomic status. Data from the 2020 US census indicates that roughly 13.8% of persons in South Carolina are below the poverty line.

“Kids who come from better socioeconomic status households have more experiences with informal learning of mathematics and science,” he said. “They have more opportunities to gain knowledge and feel confident in their abilities in S.T.E.M.”

But, there are bright spots in South Carolina’s S.T.E.M. curriculum. In terms of computer science education, South Carolina leads the nation with 92% of high schools offering computer science courses, tied with Arkansas. In addition, South Carolina requires at least one computer science credit to graduate high school.

Peters said that while there are great S.T.E.M. schools and programs throughout the state, a more centralized approach is needed.

“Lots of great actors doing lots of great things without a real strong central purpose, mission, and vision,” Peters said.

Peters said that SCCMS is looking to the models in other states— Iowa, Idaho, and Louisiana— for guidance on how to improve S.T.E.M education in South Carolina. Idaho’s S.T.E.M. tenets, for example, include providing grant opportunities for schools, training educators, recognizing S.T.E.M. education leaders, supporting an innovative culture through youth S.T.E.M. competitions and connecting rural and underserved communities to career-building resources.

“Iowa and other states are creating a model we used to have back in the early 1990s,” he said. “South Carolina at one time was a leader and now we’re playing catch up.”

Peters highlighted that there is great potential for S.T.E.M occupations and economic growth in South Carolina, but it starts at the education level.

“In essence, you have great potential and great struggle,” he said. “We have to get kids to the point where they’re skilled enough and confident enough to pursue those occuptations.”

One Lowcountry group, Charleston Women in Tech, is doing its part to get young girls and women engaged, interested, and started in technology-focused careers.

Charleston Regional Development Alliance reports that there are over 700 tech companies in the Charleston area and is the #1 fastest growing mid-sized metropolitan area for information technology jobs.

“Many people consider this the fourth industrial revolution and these are the skills that people are going to need to work in almost any industry,” Executive Director of Charleston Women in Tech Nina Magnesson said. “We are doing what we can to make sure those skills are accessible to women and that they get the support that they need in the field to succeed.”

Charleston Women in Tech offers a mentorship program where girls and young women can connect with professionals already in the field, something which Magnesson said is crucial.

“We need to get women who are already in S.T.E.M. careers, the pioneers in this industry to get involved with women who are just coming up,” she said.

Magnesson said it is important to get young women, as early as middle school, engaged with S.T.E.M. “before they’ve already gotten to high school and gotten into college and have already been intimidated out of their ambition.”

This year, Charleston Women in Tech launched a “Girls in Tech” program for 12-18 year olds with that mission in mind. Through this program, girls have the opportunity to lead computer science projects in their respective schools for Computer Science Education Week which begins December 6.

Magnesson said one of the main reasons Charleston Women in Tech was created was to help girls and young women navigate the challenges that come with S.T.E.M. careers.

“The climate of women in technology is not easy and there are things that are going to be challenging,” she said. “A lot of times companies will hire women and they won’t stay because it’s just too hard and they don’t feel a part of the team.”

Magnesson said it is critical to ensure that women know of the opportunities for technology careers right here in the Lowcountry.

“Charleston has a great need for software engineers and I think we need as an industry to help get that message across and help connect women who are talented and passionate about S.T.E.M. to the jobs that exist here,” she said.

The mission of Charleston Women in Tech is clear:

“What we have to offer is just our own experience, strength, and hope,” she said. “We love to help women succeed in Charleston.”

South Carolina will celebrate S.T.E.M. education month in March 2022.

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