Macon County Schools to receive $550,000 grant to expand STEM program 

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Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

Last year 80 Macon students participated in the school system’s SMART (Smoky Mountain Area Robotics Teams) league. The SMART league was the first time the district focused on a STEM education program.

STEM is a curriculum that educates students in four specific disciplines — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The education is an interdisciplinary and applied approach and lets kids get hands on while learning the curriculum. STEM incorporates all subjects into a cohesive learning program that explores real-world applications.

Since 2009, when the Obama administration launched the “Educate to Innovate” campaign which works to motivate and inspire students to excel in STEM subjects, school districts across the country have been working to develop STEM programs to help students become involved.

With a $60,000 matching grant from county commissioners, Macon County Schools were able to secure a grant that allowed two teams of students to be formed at Macon Middle School, three at Mountain View Intermediate and one each at Highlands and Nantahala. To help grow the SMART League and to further the district’s STEM education programs, the school system secured a $550,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation that will provide additional personnel and materials for the district.

“While the SMART League is a STEM program, supporting Science, Technology, Engineering and Math through robotics competitions and presentations, it is separate from the Golden Leaf grant,” explained Macon County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin. “The Golden Leaf grant will provide for a STEM coordinator position, professional development for our teachers in STEM, supplies and equipment for high school STEM Labs, and middle school science and math software.  Additional robotics kits will also be purchased.  Summer and after-school enrichment programs will also be provided through this grant.”

The grant will be provided to Macon County over a 24 month period and requires that after the two year period is finished, the district be responsible for continued employment for the STEM coordinator.

Macon County’s initiative to work toward growing the county’s STEM curriculum is a joint effort with other counties in the region to educate students. “This  project is part of the Smoky Mountains Regional STEM initiative which began in Swain County by Swain County Schools and Southwestern Community College,” said Dr. Baldwin. “Several companies have had difficulty finding qualified employees in advanced manufacturing, healthcare and computer technology.  Macon County schools will work with SCC, public school partners from Jackson and Swain counties, and industry partners to create a seamless regional approach to workforce training through STEM pathways aligned with higher education and regional employment targets.”

Macon County Economic Director Tommy Jenkins agreed with Baldwin and said it’s important to introduce children to STEM education early, as our region’s economy is growing the industries that need employees who specialize in those fields.

“STEM will be important on two levels,” said Jenkins. “First, it will prepare students to obtain the skills that are, and will continue to be, essential to competing in a global job market. Second,  this will eventually lead to a skilled workforce pipeline available to existing businesses for expansion, new startups and companies looking to locate locally.”

Dr. Baldwin noted that while educating a successful work force is important and one benefit of the program, the lasting impact it has for students and all areas of their education is just as beneficial.  “STEM education is important for our region in order to fill these needed employment opportunities,” he said. “This knowledge and these skills will also improve the marketability of our students wherever they may choose to live and work. Additionally, the interdisciplinary nature of STEM has been shown to help improve students’ critical thinking and creativity.  Our graduates will find these skills to be extremely beneficial regardless of their choice of college major or career.”

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