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Eastern Region of North Carolina

Educators, businesses recognize need to ‘grow our own’ workforce
  • STEM East Executive Director Steve Hill
    STEM East Executive Director Steve Hill


  • Part I: As tobacco production declines in the Eastern Region of North Carolina, young students are preparing for STEM careers – and they're happy. Listen here.
  • Part II: By emphasizing STEM education from the middle level up, STEM East attracts businesses to the Eastern Region. Listen here.

KINSTON, N.C. – There are no secrets in the Eastern Region of North Carolina. Business leaders know what education officials are doing. Secondary educators are informed on what’s happening in higher education. And higher education knows exactly what businesses need in their future employees. Nope, no secrets here.

Open lines of communication, regular meetings, and reliance on one another have helped the Eastern Region in general and the STEM East initiative specifically reshape a once tobacco- and textile-dependent workforce into a skills-rich, STEM-literate base of employees who are attracting 21st-century jobs to the area.

Call it an economic about-face or a decision to deal with issues head on. Whatever it is, seemingly everyone in the community is onboard with the sharp focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education in the 13-county Eastern Region.  Since 2010, more than 40 Pitsco STEM Learning Centers for elementary and middle school students have been deployed in Eastern North Carolina.

“It’s really going to turn workforce development education in the direction we’re going economically,” STEM East Executive Director Steve Hill said in a conference room just across the hall from facilities where local residents were being trained in state-of-the-art aerospace composite material production. “Up until 40 years ago, it was all tobacco. We were agriculture based, and we were textile based. You know where that went. . . .”

Hill and other education and business leaders involved with STEM East are moving in a different direction now: up, and they’re doing it together.

“You're looking at a situation where business leaders, hospital administrators, economic developers, community leaders, and educational leaders can sit down together and align 'PreK to gray' workforce education that aligns with the needs of the regional economy," Hill said. "Our goal is to ensure that students graduate with viable work skills and can find quality employment in the region.”

STEM: a joint venture

Instead of local education leaders deciding independently what curriculum is best for students, businesses and industry have had a voice in the process of planning courses for students in Eastern North Carolina. Craven County Public Schools Career and Technical Education (CTE) Director Chris Bailey says the recent rough economy has prompted everyone to rethink their processes in an effort to better prepare students for 21st-century jobs.

Identified areas of business/industry growth going forward include advanced manufacturing, defense/military support (several bases located in the region), aerospace, life sciences, logistics, marine trades, tourism/retiree attraction, and value-added agriculture. STEM courses at the middle and high school levels, in combination with core offerings, are putting students on track for these specific careers.

Local businessman Tom Vermillion heads up the STEM East board of directors. His vested interest is in not only his business, DEPS Security Systems, but also the entire community. “For me, if Lenoir County grows, that can help my business. Individuals buy homes and need alarms. They have businesses that might need cameras and access control. Just the fact that we would not be a shrinking economy but a growing economy would help me.”

At every level, officials believe that STEM education is a key to turning around the economy. Pitsco Lab Facilitator John Scarfpin of West Craven Middle School knows all too well how the economy has changed. “I’m from the rust belt. I watched all the industries get exported, sent overseas,” he says. “Every industry I’ve worked in – plastics manufacturing, over-the-road trucking, retail, restaurant manager, construction – I’ve been in a lot of different places, and I’ve seen people who didn’t have an ability with math or science, that did not understand the engineering portions of it. It drives me nuts. I’m thinking that STEM is the right direction to go.”

Hill says that the across-the-board buy-in on STEM – from education to all corners of the local business scene – should ensure the effort is sustained for many years to come. “When you bring businesses in and they start to see you’re listening to them and developing curriculum around them, they’re going to want to take responsibility and partnership in that. That’s your sustainability piece.”

A skilled homegrown workforce

At the core of the STEM movement in North Carolina is a desire to cultivate a workforce that is prepared to fill the skilled labor positions that are either already open or popping up. A current shortage of engineers to fill positions with local manufacturers exists in the Kinston and New Bern/Havelock area because it’s difficult to lure these professionals to an unfamiliar, semi-rural area. The goal is to inspire local youth to want to become engineers, technicians, and skilled laborers.

“We have to look at it from the standpoint that we’re not just trying to satisfy the companies that are here, but we have to try and satisfy companies we want to come here,” Bailey explained. “We have to understand that we also need to be the incubators. If we don’t start to incubate those skills here, we won’t be able to grow our own. That’s the ultimate goal – to grow our own.”

Spirit AeroSystems (see related story) recently set up a manufacturing facility at the North Carolina Global TransPark near Kinston, recognizing the region’s long-term commitment to STEM education. The site operations director for Spirit, Rick Davis, is excited about the effort to “grow our own.”

“You get the average person to come out here and look at rural, eastern North Carolina, and a number of them say, ‘Jeez, I don’t think that’s my cup of tea.’ You get someone out of the Lenoir County school system, you have them go through the ECU (East Carolina University) engineering program over in Greenville, and hire them, and they’re liable to be here a very long time,” Davis said. “If we can grow our employee base right here within the local counties, we’re going to keep them for a long time.”

Craven County Public Schools Superintendent Larry Moser adds that preparing students for real jobs within the community instead of focusing solely on core curriculum courses and hoping for the best is a proactive move that could benefit the community in several ways. “Hopefully, the unemployment rate gets better and we don’t have as many on welfare. I think, too, we will start to make sure that (the curriculum) we’re dropping in, even with the Pitsco labs, that it’s going to help with the workforce needs of this community.”

Vermillion is excited that STEM education could have such a positive effect on his and other businesses in the region. “The talk before I had ever heard about STEM was that our kids never come home. They graduate, leave, and never come back,” he said. “The question was, ‘Why?’ They said it was because there were no jobs. But, were we really preparing our kids for the jobs that were here? I don’t know that we were. So I hope that with STEM we can do that better.”

‘Education is absolutely the key’

Skills don’t just automatically form in people. They must be learned. And formal education is the logical conduit for that learning. For example, Spirit AeroSystems currently partners with a local community college to train prospective employees on specific techniques and processes needed to build components for Airbus plane parts they’re contracted to construct.

The need, though, is for STEM education to begin even earlier in the education process.

“Education is absolutely the key!” Davis said. “When (Spirit) was moving into the area, it was one of the considerations. We certainly understood the local school system and the local area, which in many respects is poor and impoverished. And the education system, like all education systems, has its pluses and minuses.”

The local initiative to build up STEM education was a major plus. And STEM lab facilitators aren’t the only educators touting the merits of career-focused STEM curriculum.

“I can tell you that from our math and science departments, this has been supported by everyone,” said West Craven Middle School Principal Francis Altman. “There has not been a single teacher not excited and supportive about getting a STEM program into this school. There are collaborative planning opportunities for all teachers.”

Davis says STEM skills are vitally important in aerospace and related industries. “Anything in the math and sciences really has direct application to future skill sets that they’re going to need,” he said. “They need to know the simple math, but if you go out to our factory floor, our assemblers out there are pulling up 3-D models and being able to manipulate that. Their brain needs to work in that 3-D environment on the computer.”

Middle-level STEM Modules

It isn’t OK anymore to wait for students to graduate from high school before teaching them career skills. And it’s not even acceptable to wait until they enter high school to begin the process. Instead, the career exposure via STEM education must begin at the middle level and earlier.

Says Altman: “By the time they get to high school, they’ve got to start making some decisions about which direction they want to go. ‘Am I on a vocational track? Am I on a college-bound track? Do I want to go to a university level?’ Some of those decisions have to be made early on.”

It's also important for students to know a vocational track is not a dead end; community and technical college credits can be transferred to many universities.

Scarfpin says his students get ample career exposure in the engaging Pitsco lab that has three sets of Modules to serve sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. The students also gain 21st-century skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork. “A lot of the times when a student doesn’t know what to do, even if they just verbalize it themselves, they’ll end up answering their own question,” Scarfpin said. “If they’re just always sitting and never saying anything and never verbalizing anything or talking themselves through it, they’re not learning it.”

CTE courses offer multiple avenues into STEM; in fact, it could be argued that CTE is shifting to STEM naturally. Bailey sees it that way.

"CTE is the application of core subjects in a career-focused setting,” Bailey said. “There’s a mindset among some students that when you’re talking about career and tech ed, you’re talking about shop classes. When you’re taking these particular concepts and molding them as Pitsco has done into this process, you’re thinking about career skills at the same time.”

Students verify that theory. Haley, a Havelock Middle School seventh grader, says she has had science and math classes before but she’s never learned the subjects as she does in the Modules lab. “It’s more fun; it’s more hands-on than reading out of a book in science class. And it’s fun to work with somebody,” she said. “It’s a lot easier than doing it by yourself. Your partner might understand something when you don’t, or you could help them understand something.”

Haley’s teacher, Marlene Bleau, concurred, going so far as to compare the lab experience to a real work environment. “They have somebody to bounce something off of. In the world of work, I run everything by my peers or my supervisors just to make sure I’m thinking about it correctly,” Bleau said. “I really feel this is a more grown-up environment that they are functioning in.”

Altman added that students coming out of the Pitsco lab will be eager to learn more about specific careers of interest in high school. “The things they see in here are intriguing. They’re cool. They want to learn more. To me, that is one of the big reasons for bringing this in here. Here in the STEM lab, they can take this algebraic concept they’re learning and see it work. They don’t have that opportunity for tactile learning in the regular classroom.”

Specifically, the process and content learned at various Modules, such as CNC Manufacturing, Electricity, and Engineering Bridges, result in the same outcomes that businesses seek from their own processes.

“It’s not unlike the way I think of our manufacturing processes,” Davis said. “We set up our manufacturing processes with repeatability and reliability in mind. We want to be able to do the same thing every time. When we set up our processes with that repeatability and reliability, we know it’ll yield the best result. I think of these education Modules in the same way. They take a structured approach to learning and provide some hands-on, real-life settings that take the student through the learning processes.”


By Tom Farmer, Editor


Photo and graphics by Melissa Karsten, Graphic Artist


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