Students across Maryland would see revamped science classes under curriculum standards the state school board will consider Tuesday — part of a broader effort by educators, researchers and businesses to kindle innovation in children well before they enter the workforce.
The proposal seeks to turn school science into a reflection of real science by emphasizing the process of discovery and encouraging students to ask questions, rather than requiring them to memorize facts. Maryland was one of 26 states that helped several science and education groups write the standards.
The changes could help boost extracurricular efforts by the private sector and higher education institutions to better train children in science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM, a decade or more before they start their careers.
The concern is competitiveness — a recent study shows a need for STEM skills in nearly one in four Baltimore-area jobs. Local defense contractors including Batelle and Northrop Grumman, as well as technology giants like Google are working alongside educators to ensure the workforce of the future is prepared for technology-oriented job openings that some companies now struggle to fill.
"I think our companies know that in order for our young people to be successful in this competitive international economy, they have to be proficient in the language of that economy," said June Streckfus, executive director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education. "The core of that economy is science, technology, engineering and math."
In Maryland, an effort to improve STEM education began in 2009. A state task force recommended curriculum changes, internship opportunities and teacher professional development to help meet a goal of increasing the pool of STEM college graduates. Representatives from companies such as Lockheed Martin and Apple worked with educators on the task force.
Meanwhile, a national effort was ongoing to redesign science education. Maryland and 26 states worked alongside the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve, as well as teachers from around the country. Two Maryland school board members, including the president, have been directly involved in the effort funded by the Carnegie Foundation.
The U.S. Department of Education was not involved in crafting the voluntary curriculum standards, which are designed to better engage students and to show them how the subject can apply in their lives and future careers.
"When a child enters a school they have a natural curiosity. So much of science is about curiosity. To be honest, we beat that out of them by the time they get through school," said Stephen Pruitt, a former science teacher and senior vice president at Achieve, an organization started by the National Governors Association that has helped write new standards.
Educators want to foster that curiosity. The traditional manner of teaching was not preparing students well for the trial and error considered key to innovation, educators found.
"Classes will look a little sloppier," said David L. Evans, executive director of the science teachers association, trying to describe what will change under the new approach. "It is more important to learn how science is done than to memorize a lot of isolated facts."
At Ellicott Mills Middle School in Ellicott City, efforts to foster that curiosity have already begun. This month, students packed the gym for a car race, the culmination of a yearlong engineering and design project.
"I have my heart set on lacrosse, but if that doesn't work out, then engineering is cool," sixth grader Trent Somers,12, said moments after taking the championship. He and his classmates crafted small wooden cars — with Somers' winning design teardrop-shaped, packed with BB-gun pellets, and greased with graphite around the axles for speed.
Businesses are supporting the efforts, giving about $750 million nationwide each year to improve STEM education.
Battelle, a global research and development defense contractor, signed an agreement last year with the John Carroll School in Harford County to support its STEM Academy. The partnership gives high schoolers opportunities for internships and job shadowing, and in the spring, brought company engineers and students together for a "Cyber Night" where teens learned about code-cracking and computer virus protection.
More than 500 students from kindergarten through 12th grade attended the first HoCo STEM Festival at Howard Community College this month, where presentations included a Harry Potter-themed Defense Against the Dark Arts presentation by the National Security Agency. Other organizations at the event included the U.S. Naval Academy and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Northrop Grumman sponsors the Air Force Association's Cyberpatriot program, a national high school competition in cyber-defense that could have an entry from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 2014. The annual competition involves races to uncover malware.
"The idea is to try to get kids the skills to be able to figure out when something's abnormal in an operating system or a network," said Mike Ridge, a Battelle employee working with Polytechnic students for the competition.
Other efforts focus on helping students already interested in STEM. Defense contractor Sabre Systems Inc. recently awarded three $1,000 college scholarships to Maryland high schoolers, including two near its Aberdeen offices.
Such efforts help address workforce needs. A recent Brookings Institution report found that STEM skills are required in more jobs than previously thought — nearly one in four in the Baltimore area, the eighth-highest concentration in the country. But many high-tech companies, including Sabre, say they have trouble finding qualified workers.
Businesses aren't the only ones with a stake in improving STEM education. Higher education efforts like Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth have long provided supplemental learning opportunities to gifted students eager for more access to STEM fields.
The challenges include reaching students who may never have considered research as a pursuit. That requires earlier intervention than many other STEM programs offer, said Elaine Hansen, the center's executive director.
"One of our big concerns is that as a nation, we leave it largely to chance whether you can tap into your ability or talent," Hansen said. "College is much too late to be addressing it."
Despite all the attention, there are shortcomings to the efforts, according to some advocates. For one, the pending state standards don't include recommendations for computer science, which concerns Marie desJardins, a professor of computer science at UMBC. A National Science Foundation grant the university is seeking, on top of funding it is receiving from Google, could help remedy that by training teachers to offer computer science classes.
"There's this whole area of knowledge that's just this gaping hole in K-12 study," desJardins said. "It is the most important thing, in my opinion, for a young person who wants to get a job to know. But the change process is very slow."
A chance meeting with a magnet program coordinator spurred Sarah Morris' decision to spend her high school career at the Science and Mathematics Academy in Aberdeen, a 45-minute commute from her home in Jarrettsville.
"As soon as I went there, I loved it," said Morris, 17, who will study engineering at Virginia Tech in the fall. "I was always engaged, and I didn't have to worry about taking boring classes."
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Liz Bowie and Casey Leins contributed to this article.