Solving problems: Teacher recognizing for STEM efforts

Phil Johnston — a teacher who coordinates the science, technology, engineering and math program at Central High School — demonstrates a three-dimensional printer students use for various projects. The Colorado Technology Association selected Johnston as its 2017 Educator of the Year. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Johnston — a teacher who coordinates the science, technology, engineering and math program at Central High School — demonstrates a three-dimensional printer students use for various projects. The Colorado Technology Association selected Johnston as its 2017 Educator of the Year. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

While Phil Johnston works hard to prepare high school students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math, he says the so-called STEM program he coordinates involves something more basic. That’s teaching students to apply what they learn to solve problems.

It’s an approach for which Johnston has become a fervent advocate. “I believe wholeheartedly in it.”

It’s also an approach that’s earned Johnston and the STEM program at Central High School in Grand Junction statewide recognition.

The Colorado Technology Association selected Johnston as its 2017 Educator of the Year. The association presents its annual Apex Awards to recognize the accomplishments of individuals and companies working in the tech sector in the state.

Johnston knew he was a finalist for the award. He was also a finalist in 2015. He says he was surprised, nonetheless, by the announcement of his selection at an awards ceremony in Denver. He says he also was pleased by the attention the award draws to the program. “It’s a very, very good reflection of some of the neat things our staff is doing here.”

Johnston teaches classes in engineering design and architectural and structural engineering and coordinates the STEM program.

Now in its fifth year, the program offers classes and activities to prepare students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Students also earn college credits by completing Advance Placement courses as well as courses offered at Western Colorado Community College in Grand Junction. About 175 Mesa County School District 51 students participate, he says.

In addition, Johnston is involved in efforts to make Central High School the first school in Colorado and one of the first nationwide to earn campus-wide certification from the National Institute for STEM Education. Johnston hopes that certification will be in place by the beginning of the new school year in August. Certication will mean the majority of teachers incorporate STEM concepts and problem-solving approaches in their classrooms, he says.

Johnston has worked as a teacher and coach at Central High School for five years. He was an instructor and coach at Colorado Mesa University before that.

He also brings to his latest duties his experiences working as an engineer and project manager in the telecommunications sector as well as a home builder.

Johnston says he believes a different approach is needed from what he says has been the traditional method of presenting information and then having students demonstrate through testing they’ve learned that information. Rather, students should learn how to apply what they’ve learned to solve problems. Insteading of fearing failure, students should embrace mistakes as learning opportunities that ultimately will lead to success, he says.

The process should start from the very beginning in preschool, he says. “I don’t think you can start it early enough.”

The increased emphasis in STEM education comes at a time when demand for workers in science, technology, engineering and math jobs outpaces supply, Johnston says.

According to numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic, employment in STEM jobs increased 10.5 percent from 2009 to 2015. That’s double the growth of non-STEM jobs.

Another 2.6 million STEM job openings are expected through 2024, including 1.1 million jobs in computer occupations and more than 500,000 jobs in engineering.

Wages reflect the increasing demand, with 93 out of 100 STEM occupations offer pay above the national average. The average wage for a STEM job is $87,570, almost double the average wage of $45,700 for non-STEM occupations.

Yet, the United States lags behind other industrialized nations in STEM education, ranking behind 36 other education systems in math and 18 others in science.

The U.S. Department of Education reported that only 16 percent of high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in STEM careers. Of those who pursue a STEM college major, only half choose to work in a related job.

Johnston says programs such the one offered at Central High School will help, as will a more general approach to include STEM concepts and problem-solving in education.

While it’s important to prepare some students for college, Johnston says it’s also important to prepare other students for vocational opportunities and training in welding, mechanical work and other jobs.

It’s important, too, that STEM education and training matches what STEM employers need, he says.

To that end, Johnston says he relies on the involvement of  representatives from local companies to guide the program. “This is based on what the community has been telling us.”

Johnston says he welcomes additional involvement in the program. Companies also can promote STEM education by offering internships and apprenticeships as well as just allowing students to see firsthand what a STEM job involves.

Johnston continues to work hard to prepare students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math. But it’s mostly about helping them apply what they learn to solve problems.

Phil Castle is editor of the Grand Valley Business Times, a twice-monthly business journal published in Grand Junction. Castle brings to his duties nearly 30 years of experience in editorial management positions with Western Colorado newspapers. In addition, his free-lance work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor's degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University.
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