Connecting Businesses and STEM Students

Students in David Lockett’s STEM classes at Edward W. Bok Academy in Lake Wales, Florida, demonstrate to Duke Energy Business Energy Manager/Senior Energy Engineer Derick Farfan a display they created for the company that illustrates their knowledge of energy concepts. Photo courtesy of David Lockett

How can teachers help students explore science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) career paths? One way is to have them do a project with a local business, according to David Lockett, STEM teacher at Edward W. Bok Academy in Lake Wales, Florida. With funding from the Polk Education Foundation of Bartow, Florida, and a Motorola Solutions Foundation Technology and Engineering Education Grant, Lockett’s Duke Energy Project was “a career workforce development” project “that was capped with a visit to” the Walt Disney World Solar Facility in Orlando, he explains. The five-megawatt solar farm is part of an agreement allowing Duke Energy to own and operate the farm on Disney World’s land. In return, the farm provides solar power to Disney World.

“The project focused on the different types of energy produced in Florida,” says Lockett. The Motorola grant guidelines required the inclusion of public safety elements, vocational skills, and engineering and/or information technology concepts. “I went for both,” he notes. “I wanted students to understand more about how electricity is provided and generated to the area, interact with diverse engineers in the field, and [hear from] scientists and other Duke Energy speakers”—including some of the students’ parents who work there—“about the range of energy careers.” he explains.

“No one had approached [Duke Energy] from the renewable energy aspect. I wanted to have students more deeply understand it than they could from just one class visit there,” says Lockett. His students spent about 20 hours either visiting Duke Energy or hearing from its employees when they visited Bok Academy.

Lockett created hands-on STEM learning activities to increase students’ awareness of energy-related STEM careers. For example, his students built solar cars and solar robots, designed and tested wind turbines, did coding projects, designed circuits, and built miniature houses to show how electricity travels. As a culminating project, his students created a display showing how electricity is supplied to a miniature house they built and demonstrating their knowledge of renewable versus nonrenewable resources, closed and open circuits, the importance of solar power, and “the benefits and challenges in technology that play a role in our energy system,” says Lockett. Duke Energy plans to show the display to other visiting schools, he adds.

“My students said, ‘Now we understand why you drive a hybrid car,’” Lockett relates. The project “increased their interest in different forms of energy and why technology has to be efficient.”

Lockett and his students then visited the Walt Disney World Solar Facility to discover “where Disney gets all the power for its operations,” he adds. “We were the first school group to visit there. It was not a glamorous trip, but it was very helpful” in increasing their understanding of how solar panels work. “After the trip, the students wanted to talk to their parents about getting solar panels on their homes,” he recalls.

The project informed his students about a myriad of careers: line workers, coding technicians, engineers, engineering technologists, cybersecurity engineers, information technology software analysts, and data science consultants. Lockett told students, “Every worker has a skill set or interest to lead them into a career path…Try it all, and see what you like best.”

Real-World Exposure

“I help students find their passion by exposing them to as many opportunities as possible” to connect with local businesses, says Peter Suchmann, coordinator of the Science Research Program for Grades 9 and 10 at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck, New York. “There’s a lot of industry on Long Island.”

For example, Suchmann chooses a group of students to attend an open house at Lifetime Brands, a kitchen product company headquartered in Garden City, New York, to learn about the company’s marketing, manufacturing, and packaging operations. Before the visit, Suchmann says he and his students “discuss the invention process for new and exciting kitchen gadgets. I hold a contest for students to come up with new kitchen gadgets, and the most developed ideas get pitched to [Lifetime Brands] executives.” He notes that “preparing a 30-second elevator pitch is tough and a good skill for ninth graders,” and he works with them on “body language, eye contact, and bubbling enthusiasm.”

At company headquarters, “we meet with their [executives] and actually discuss ideas the kids come up with for new products, and then we visit the showcase floor and study new products that have been successful. It is a great opportunity to see the 3-D printers used to make new prototypes and some of the new products that might actually make it to the market,” he relates.

Some of Suchmann’s students are working with the Great Neck Breast Cancer Coalition as part of a student science fellowship. “Two of my students took over [the coalition’s] newsletter…and updated it, and made it much better,” using their writing and computer science skills, he reports. “They talk to their teachers about topics to be able to explain them, and help summarize [cancer] research for a general audience…In this world of fake science news, science communication is very important.”
He points out that students chosen for this fellowship have presented their work at science competitions and have gone on “to top labs in the Northeast to work on cancer prevention.”

Suchmann’s students have also participated in focus groups for Brainly, an international social learning and tutoring network for high school students (https://brainly.co). “I answered their call for teachers [to have students provide input on the website]. On Brainly, people are ranked by how many questions they answer [accurately],” he explains. “They want students to have their questions answered by teachers and students who know the material.”

His students “gave feedback on the platform and its potential use by American students. My students each earned $20 for their focus group experience,” Suchmann reports.

He says the focus for his school and his class is “internships lead to career tracks.” By connecting his students with businesses, some have landed internships with those companies that ultimately can lead to employment.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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