Science competition helps students prepare for high-tech jobs, experts say
by Laura Gaddy
lbgaddy@annistonstar.com
Feb 23, 2014 | 4197 views |  0 comments | 93 93 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Kitty Stone Elementary School sixth grader Morgan Thiessen gives her Popsicle-stick truss a once-over during a bridge-building lesson in science class. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
Kitty Stone Elementary School sixth grader Morgan Thiessen gives her Popsicle-stick truss a once-over during a bridge-building lesson in science class. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
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JACKSONVILLE — Sixth-grade student Parker Comisac can't decide what he likes better: the fact that his Kitty Stone Elementary School won the Science Olympiad this month, or all the new things he learned while he prepared for the competition.

"It's cool to learn all the stuff," Comisac said. "It also feels really good when your work pays off."

Jacksonville topped 31 other teams from across Alabama to take the state title for the first time since 2008, but the long-term benefits competitors receive for their work may be better than the recognition they've already received.

Experts say students who learn science and math skills early are more likely to be prepared for a workforce with jobs for people who have technical expertise.

"Math and science are really going to be the skills for future success," said Steve Ricks, who oversees the Alabama, Math, Science and Technology Initiative for the state Department of Education. "It's already happening now."

Ricks said that in the years to come, there will likely be more of the high-skill, higher-paying jobs like those at the state’s auto manufacturing plants, in the engineering sector centered on Huntsville and in the biotech sector around the University of Alabama-Birmingham jobs across the state.

The program Ricks oversees, known as AMSTI, is designed to equip teachers with the special expertise they need to teach math and science.

Jacksonville's Kitty Stone is an "AMSTI school," meaning most or all of its science and math teachers have been trained using the state's program.

"I think this is one of the reasons these kids just won the Science Olympiad," Ricks said.

Kitty Stone teacher Caroline Arthur helped train students for the Olympiad this year.

Like Ricks, Arthur said Kitty Stone students were prepared for the competition, in part, because of AMSTI. She said they practice the types of skills they used in the competition throughout the year using kits that the school received from the state program.

The 12-year-old AMSTI is designed to teach students to apply science and math in real-world situations. For example, Kitty Stone fourth graders used an AMSTI kit to build a small vehicle in class and competitors in the Science Olympiad had to make a model car out of different types of uncooked pasta.

Arthur said her students retain more knowledge when they get to do hands-on work.

"They don't want to sit down and learn out of a book," she said, noting that there is still a place for book-based work in science and math.

She said educators can't wait until high school to begin preparing students to work in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields.

"It's building on things that they have been learning since kindergarten," she said. "You have to start that preparation early."

Experts and classroom teachers say it's important to encourage students to become interested in math and science before they reach middle school.

“Anytime you can make math and science fun at an early age, it’s a huge win,” said Marc P. Christensen, dean of the Lyle School of Engineering at Southern Methodist University in Texas.

Christensen said there is a national need to prepare children for work in the STEM fields, and that there will be more jobs across the country for the students who graduate with expertise in math and science. The Lyle School of Engineering engages children in science-related subjects through STEM-Works.com, a website that gives parents, teachers and volunteers science exercises to do with students.

Students from 32 schools across Alabama who attended the Olympiad were given about two dozen competitive challenges. They had to make cars from pasta, take a quiz on marine life and use measurement skills in a challenge called, "get your bearings."

Fifth-grade student Coleman Oliver was one of 28 fourth- through sixth-graders who were part of the Kitty Stone team. He and Parker Comisac were partners in at least one event, and came away from the Olympiad with three medals.

"I felt really excited that for one of the first years in a long time, we got first," Oliver said.

He sat Friday surrounded by more than six of his teammates at a celebratory event in honor of their accomplishment. Oliver and his peers may still be in elementary school but the teammates are already planning their careers.

All but one said they wanted to go into one of the science, technology, engineering or math fields.

Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LGaddy_Star.
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