Maureen McMahon talks about science, technology, engineering and math subjects with a passion akin to those who run music or theater departments.
For McMahon, Anne Arundel County public schools' assistant superintendent for advanced studies and programs, that passion reached a new high recently, as her efforts to engage students in STEM studies yielded a $2.3 million Department of Defense Education Activity grant, the school system's second DoDEA award in three years.
The grant will support a three-year initiative to increase STEM opportunities at Meade High School, MacArthur Middle School, West Meade Early Education Center and at Annapolis, Pershing Hill, Manor View, Meade Heights and West Annapolis elementary schools.
The grant will be used for about 5,300 students those schools, which have a high proportion of military-connected families, school officials said.
McMahon said that much of the grant will be focused on teachers' professional development to change the way schools teach STEM subjects, and to offer students curriculum changes.
"We use it for targeted areas where we want to jump-start a critical population into a new place," she said. "You build fundamental blocks, put them in place, engage these students, get them excited and then move them into taking more and more challenging course work."
"You help them to persist in learning — even when it's hard — because they've seen the reward and the excitement whether it's robotics or math competitions," she said. "Whatever that is, they get excited, and that excitement comes into the classroom."
She said that the school system began such efforts three years ago at elementary schools in the Fort Meade area after being awarded a $1.4 million DoDEA grant. The result, McMahon said, has been greater student participation and engagement in after-school programs.
"And that's the beginning of changing achievement," she said. "You have to have their hearts before you can change learning."
Previous funding has been used for projects such as those offered at Gambrills-based Let's Go Boys and Girls, a nonprofit that partners with Title I schools and youth organizations to provide STEM activities. As of last spring, the organization had provided activities to more than 1,200 children in the Baltimore-Washington area.
"We want to create a pipeline from early elementary all the way to high school, realizing that many of these kids have the talent but have never been exposed to this as an opportunity," said Corky Graham, CEO and founder of Let's Go Boys and Girls.
He echoed McMahon's passion and the understanding that the process of moving students toward STEM-based learning takes time. His organization partnered with Meade-area elementary schools in curriculum implementation and teacher development, focusing on such areas as robotics.
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"If we get them early and stick with them, we're convinced that we can lift these kids from where they are now to becoming STEM professionals at four-year colleges or community colleges or high-end trade schools," Graham said.
Graham, an engineer who once served as director of research and development for the Navy's Naval Sea Systems Command and as a senior vice president in Northrop Grumman's shipbuilding sector, said federal agencies such as the Department of Defense are offering grants to address workforce shortages in STEM-related fields.
"The Defense Department knows the importance of STEM because the military is so technologically advanced." said Graham. "And they, like many corporations, are worried that there's not going to be enough American-born students to be our future scientists, engineers and mathematicians."
STEM-based learning was promoted by former Anne Arundel Superintendent Kevin Maxwell, who launched STEM magnet programs as part of the Programs of Choice initiative. Maxwell's departure this month to take a similar position in Prince George's County schools led to questions in some school communities about the future of such programs.
McMahon said the DoDEA grant should give parents confidence that the STEM emphasis will continue.
"There should be no problem, because we built it with strong foundational values that STEM instruction is for all students," McMahon said. "We will not go in a different direction."