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Helmut Schmidt, Published May 08 2013

Baesler says ND needs more STEM education

WEST FARGO – North Dakota needs more STEM schools and a way to expand and integrate that style of learning into high schools, the state’s superintendent of public instruction said Wednesday.

“I’m so impressed by what I saw today,” Kirsten Baesler said after a tour of the West Fargo STEM Center middle school. “The level of engagement. The students were the ones explaining (the subject) and the teachers were facilitating.”

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Those are disciplines that industry and education leaders agree need more emphasis to spur innovation and entrepreneurship, and give America’s young people a chance to succeed in the 21st century.

“One of the hurdles when you get to the high school level is it’s difficult” to identify the learning hours for credit in terms of English, math or science because of the interdisciplinary nature of STEM learning, Baesler said.

Those credit hours are used to determine graduation requirements, and whether a student is college-ready, she said.

“We may need new measures of learning to bring this on to high schools,” Baesler said. “That’s my problem to solve. That will be one of my missions.”

Baesler and state lawmakers from Fargo, West Fargo and Casselton toured the STEM Center and talked with sixth-graders.

In Gretchen Peterson’s math class, the students were using ratios and proportions to figure out how to direct water to a wastewater treatment plant, much like engineers for a growing city.

The students explained that not only were they accountable for their own work but had to learn to work together as a team.

“That’s a lot like real life,” Baesler said.

“I’m totally impressed by the level of engagement of the students,” said Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo. “The last time I saw this many arms raised was when someone asked who wanted ice cream.”

In Gretchen Stafslien’s science and social studies class, the tour pulled in just as a group of students were going through a Powerpoint presentation on the geology, climate and ecosystem of a desert national park.

The students said they learned more when they made presentations or listened to classmates.

“In a traditional classroom, the teachers do the work. Here, it’s being done by the kids,” West Fargo Superintendent David Flowers said.

Baesler said it’s important for lawmakers to set aside money to train teachers to learn how to use new teaching styles to transform learning.

She also complimented the students.

“Nobody should worry about this generation of students. You guys are fantastic, and you’re going to rock the world,” she said. Baesler said the Legislature included some money for STEM education in the career and technical education budget for the next biennium.

“I hope that it (STEM education) grows. I would like to see it grow throughout the state of North Dakota,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583