STEM Alliance initiative shows middle schoolers that science is cool

STEM robot

STEM robot:  built by eighth-graders in Spotsylvania, Va. as a component of William & Mary initiative.

As the rolling robot makes its final turn and heads back to the section labeled “home base,” the students cheer. 

The morning of building, programming and testing robots at Ni River Middle School in Spotsylvania, Va., is just one component of a William & Mary initiative that seeks to get middle-school students interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

The STEM Education Alliance, based in William & Mary’s School of Education, matches teachers with volunteers—professional engineers and scientists who serve as co-teachers in the classroom. Since its inception in 2004, the alliance has worked with seven school districts in the Northern Virginia area and scientists and engineers from the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Dahlgren, Va.

Funded by the National Defense Education Program (NDEP), the alliance provides training, instructional materials, professional development opportunities and school counselor training, as well as summer academies for students. Staff members from the alliance annually visit classrooms to see the program in action.

Jessica Taylor, the STEM Education Alliance project specialist at the William & Mary School of Education, was on hand for the Ni River event. She says the program constantly evolves based on what they see working—or not working—in the classrooms.

“I like to see what’s popular with the kids, what’s piquing their interest, based on the things that they are carrying,” she said. “This is the group we’re trying to reach,” she said. Research shows that students lose interest in the sciences during middle school, so the alliance focuses on that age range, Taylor noted.i