Third in a series

CENTENARY, S.C. -- Creek Bridge Middle School lies nearly 40 miles from the nearest coastal waters, so it may have been a strange sight when a small sailboat was hauled into its parking lot last term, and stranger still when it was dragged into the school’s library.

“Yeah, it was pretty difficult fitting that boat through the doors,” said Nathan Indergaard, a computer technician for the Marion County School District.

Over the past two years, Indergaard and other district faculty and staff have been spending an hour of class time every other week at Creek Bridge Middle School teaching students about the science and math behind sailing, drawing from curriculum developed by U.S. Sailing’s Reach program.

It goes beyond the classroom, though. Indergaard and his team have invited sailors and boat manufacturers to talk to students and faculty, and last semester his class took a trip to Charleston to spend time at sea with members of the College of Charleston sailing team.

This is just one of the ways Pee Dee schools are reaching outside of the normal day-to-day curriculum to get students excited about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and its one they hope will lead students toward successful placements in a competitive job market.

According to a survey by the STEM Education Coalition, CEOs of major U.S. corporations indicated that nearly 60 percent of job openings required some level of STEM fluency and 42 percent required “advanced STEM understanding.”

But indicators of college readiness in many Pee Dee districts are unsettling in regard to the increasing necessity of STEM skills, especially when the STEM job market is expected to increase by 17 percent by 2024.

For instance, in Marion County, only three-and-a-half percent of students scored at or above the ACT “college-ready benchmark” in science, as well as nine percent of students in math. The benchmark scores represent a level of proficiency that gives a student a 50 percent chance of scoring a B or higher and a 75 percent chance of scoring a C or higher in a given college-level subject area.

Since many STEM jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree, this is a worrying sign. But Indergaard and his peers seem to have found a method for increasing STEM literacy in their students.

Students from his first year’s Reach program are showing improvements in assessments in areas where other parts of the district are struggling, especially in math and science.

Indergaard, who plans to expand the program to other Marion County schools in the coming years, says he didn’t need to look at the assessments to realize how much they had gained from the experience.

“When we went to Charleston, these kids were asking really good questions,” he said. “That, to me, is a sign that they are curious and engaged.”

On the other side of the Pee Dee River, a growing outreach staff at the Governor’s School for Science and Math is finding ways to get its advanced STEM curriculum and opportunities to underserved communities both in the state and in the Pee Dee.

The school hosts a number of programs on its campus, including its most popular summer camp, GoSciTech, which draws in hundreds of students. It has also extended its extracurricular and summer camp opportunities to campuses around the state.

One of GSSM’s initiatives, iTeams Extreme, came to the Florence area last year and will happen again this year at Sneed Middle School. Powered by Google, the program helps students get ahead in the fields of computer science, technology and entrepreneurship.

But these offerings usually come with a price tag to students. The iTeams program is $185 per student for four days, and GoSciTech is $850 per student for a week. However, each camp they offer has need-based scholarships available, giving children from low-income families the opportunity to get ahead in STEM subjects.

The Governor's School has even broken the geographical barrier, offering an interactive virtual Algebra II class.

“That gives us an opportunity to go into rural areas that can’t provide high-level math or physics, and do just that,” said Randy Lacross, vice president of outreach and research.

The platform they use, Vidyo, and the school’s technological capabilities allow for up to 16 different classrooms or learning centers to tune in for instruction.

Lacross and GSSM Foundation CEO Kim Bowman are constantly reaching out to industries and start-ups across the state for funding. Generally speaking, they have no problem accomplishing this, as the results of the camps are often above par.

For example, students in the iTeams camp create something that requires some amount of computer coding and hardware operation, and then give a “Smart Pitch,” much like the entrepreneurs on the TV show “Shark Tank,” to a group of community businesspeople and officials.

“At one ‘Smart Pitch’ in Spartanburg, a group gave their pitch, and an entrepreneur was in the audience,” Lacross said. “All of a sudden, he stood up and told the students he wanted to buy their product.”

Though part of this is a recruiting tool to get students to consider spending their 11th- and 12th-grade years at the Governor's School, a public residential high school, Lacross says there is so much more to his work.

“It’s not about getting them to GSSM,” he said. “It’s about getting them to that next step in life. To me, it’s a pipeline to meaningful STEM careers.”

Many other Pee Dee groups are preparing students for careers as well. Local colleges like Florence-Darlington Technical College and Francis Marion University offer opportunities for students to get ahead with hands-on learning. Organizations like Future Business Leaders of America and a variety of academic honors societies are giving students connections to real-world professionals in STEM and entrepreneurship.

If these efforts keep growing and branching out, the Pee Dee may be on the brink of a STEM literacy breakthrough.

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