On a Wednesday evening in early April at the main Joliet Township High School District 204 administration building, a group of 30 students along with their families, teachers and school administrators suddenly grows quiet.
At the district’s annual Community Exhibition, they watch an odd-looking contraption roll by and hurl balls at a large chute. After a couple of failed attempts, the robot succeeds in dunking a ball, and the audience erupts in applause.
Moments later, the device climbs a series of horizontal bars overhead by extending claw like steel arms and pulls itself up on sharply angled steel hooks. The crowd cheers again.
Although primitive in appearance, this marvel of engineering came about due to the perseverance of students supported by a school system and community committed to the study of science, technology, engineering and math, STEM approach to learning.
STEM offers an interdisciplinary approach that enables students across Illinois to see connections between what they are learning and an evolving outside world. Its importance cannot be overstated, according to the National Science Teaching Association. The association says for the U.S. to compete in the age of globalization, a STEM-literate workforce is vital.
In 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted STEM-related occupations would expand 10.5% by 2030.
Michael Zwartz, who teaches physics at Joliet Central, and Steven Zeko, also a science teacher at JC, devote two hours each week after school to mentor 30 students from Joliet Central High and Joliet West in the Robotics Club.
The Steel Tiger FIRST Robotics team had just eight weeks to design, build and program its robot for participation the 2022 Central Illinois Regional FIRST Robotics Competition at Bradley University in Peoria in March.
The team then revamped the robot to compete in the 2022 Midwest Regional Competition in April at the University of Illinois Chicago.
“We talk more about the Robotics Club than planning for our classes sometimes,” Zeko said jokingly to parents the night of the school district’s exhibition.
Zwartz and Zeko were not the only ones wanting to give the students a taste of real-world engineering. Illinois employers Caterpillar, Vulcan, Flexco and KWM Gutterman, donated materials, foundry services and consultations with some of their engineers for developing the robot.
The value of the concerted effort manifested as gains made by students.
After graduation from Joliet West, Matthew Papesh, the lead for the robot’s programming team, will head to Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts to study robotics engineering. He said the Robotics Club taught him how to collaborate as well as develop valuable public speaking skills.
Megan Miller, a senior at Joliet West who led the robot’s build team, plans to study astrophysics at Arizona State University. “This very much took me to a new level with mathematics skills and gave me the confidence to lead,” she said. “It also taught me to be an innovator. I’m a lot more accepting of ideas, but I also learned when to stop defending what’s not working and move on.”
Her father, Tom Miller, a nuclear engineer, served as a volunteer mentor for the group.
Aiden Morales, a senior at Joliet Central, said, “This really got me into this arena. It made me decide I wanted to go into information technology.” He plans to study the subject at Bradley University.
Lauren Gans, a senior at Joliet West who worked on the robot’s build team, plans to study mechanical engineering at Purdue University. “I was just at Purdue, and I felt already I could have used 50% to 70% of the lab,” she said.
But the Robotics Club is just one measure of District 204′s success involving students in STEM activities.
The district also participates in Project Lead the Way, a nationally accredited program that engages students and teachers in K-12 in hands-on activities related to computer science, engineering and the bio-medical science. The program allows students to earn college credit at schools such as Bradley University and University of Illinois, said Chris McGuffey, District 204 Career and Technical Education curriculum director.
“It’s a cool program because it uses industry partners,” said McGuffey. “We’re definitely career driven, so we build courses and teach skills that prepare kids for jobs after high school.”
That seems a solid strategy. In 2020, the median annual wage for a U.S. worker was $41,950, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those in STEM occupations, annual median income was $89,780.
Another Illinois school district making an outsized effort to employ STEM teaching strategies and involve local employers is Plainfield Community Consolidated District 202.
“Local employers help us with our career fairs,” said Glenn Wood, Ed.D., District 202 associate superintendent. “Our teachers visit these employers. They’re talking to the bosses, so they can come back and give students a clear sense of jobs needed.”
District 202 also gives juniors and seniors the option of taking classes available through WILCO Area Career Center. Classes take place at the center in Romeoville, as well as Joliet Junior College, Lewis University and other training locations.
Many of the classes offered count toward college credit or state certifications and enable students to explore STEM-related careers.
An Architecture, Construction Management and Engineering course tops a list that includes Aviation mechanics, CISCO Networking, Computer Technology, Game Design, Heavy Equipment Technology, and Introduction to Health Professions.
About 1,400 high school students from five school districts connect annually with the WILCO Area Career Center. Besides District 202′s four high schools in Plainfield, students hail from high schools in Bolingbrook, Braidwood, Lemont, Lockport, Romeoville and Wilmington.
STEM teachers say learning employs a “constructivist” approach, which builds on relatable, hands-on experiences.
In 2013, while working on his doctorate in education, Mike Grady, principal at District 170 Dixon High School, investigated whether constructivist methods were better than conventional instruction for enabling students to learn mathematics at three Illinois school districts.
One district employed a traditional approach, one employed a constructivist approach and one employed a blend of the two. “Back then, we found there were not significant results,” Grady said. “Now, it seems there’s no one size fits all.”
On the brink of retirement after 33 years in teaching and school administration, he described District 170 as now employing a blended approach. Which may not be so different from many other school districts across the nation. “A work in progress, staffed by a lot of good people,” he said.
Of one thing he seemed certain: “As society relies more on technology,” Grady said, “it’s becoming more important to prepare students for careers requiring a foundation in mathematics.”