Sunday, December 8, 2013
On an overcast day at one of Maine's juvenile correctional facilities, a class of boys proudly admires their garden. As they enjoy the fruits of their labor, their teacher identifies each crop for me, pointing out the agricultural strategy that, in some cases, protects from garden predators.
When it comes to traditional science education, many know the familiar feeling: flailing amidst a sea of variables and limits, constants and diagrams with no lifesaver in sight. But this was science in action. For these boys, this was learning through doing.
Today the daunting subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics are not just flooding our minds. They are flooding the job market and have been doing so at a rapid pace for almost 20 years. By now it is accepted that fields intensive in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (known by the acronym STEM) are here to stay, creating new jobs as well as repurposing current ones. Without strong academic achievement in these fields, is the average Maine student doomed to fail in tomorrow's job market?
Fortunately, a collaboration of intergovernmental and nonprofit stakeholders in Maine has created an initiative for strong outreach in these fields. According to information compiled by the Maine Department of Education, one in seven new jobs in Maine over the next decade will be related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The wages of these jobs will be 58 percent higher than other occupations in Maine. These fields traditionally have been seen as a selective club for prospective surgeons, physicists and engineers.
Today, literacy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is becoming increasingly important at all levels of industry. Thus, equal access to education in those fields is imperative. As part of its overall mission to reduce juvenile crime, Maine's Juvenile Justice Advisory Group supports increased access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education for all Maine youth.
The most effective solution to crime is prevention. Providing support for at-risk youths is essential to pre-empting crime, preventing the need for secure detention and reducing the risks of recidivism in adulthood. Studies have shown a strong link between illiteracy and juvenile delinquency. While 10 percent of youths in public schools nationwide are identified as learning-disabled, the number of youths with learning disabilities in secure juvenile correctional facilities ranges from 30 to 50 percent.
With science, technology, engineering and mathematics literacy growing in importance, the fight to create a positive academic environment for at-risk youths intensifies. Maine needs a focused response that will reduce the likelihood of juvenile delinquency by abandoning the notion of these fields as a "genius club" and introducing a broader spectrum that applies to all Maine students.
Improved science, technology, engineering and mathematics education for students involved in Maine's juvenile justice system prepares them for a wider range of job prospects, increases employment security and decreases recidivism.
Many high-tech jobs in today's labor market do not require a four-year degree; some require no degree at all. Preliminary education in these fields, combined with basic technical training, greatly broadens the number of jobs available and respective rate of pay for Maine's most vulnerable youth.
However, access to education of this kind in correctional facilities is difficult to achieve. When I spoke with a teacher during my visit to South Portland's Long Creek Youth Development Center, I learned that science, technology, engineering and mathematics opportunities there are not sufficient. As of today, most of these kinds of lessons are based around agriculture, but a lack of resources keeps a vital field out of reach: health care professions. With better access, students at Long Creek could have hands-on experience with medical equipment and gain a better understanding of technical positions in health care.
At-risk youths face resource barriers similar to those of the youths at Long Creek. The Maine STEM Collaborate notes in its 2012 executive summary that ethnicity, economic disadvantage and geography are among the largest factors hindering progress in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In order to ensure equal access for these students, funding must be readily accessible to districts where these factors are most prevalent. With greater funding and grants specific to at-risk areas, increased collaboration among in-school and extracurricular programs and greater teacher-preparedness, Maine can alleviate the educational and socioeconomic barriers.
The state of Maine must overcome the age-old obstacles of equitable access to literacy, with specific focus on science, technology, engineering and math literacy. The rising tide of an increasingly technical society does not have to leave at-risk students underwater. With a repurposed understanding of inequity and its solutions, all Maine youths have a better chance at safe passage towards a brighter horizon.
Alexander Fiorille is a senior at Bates College in Lewiston. He spent the summer of 2013 interning with the Maine Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, part of the Maine Department of Corrections in Augusta.