UC center strives to boost STEM education earlier in students’ lives

150 150 Nadine Ono

(Photo Credit: Steve Rainwater/Flickr)

Even though society has become more integrated with technology, California is still facing a gap in STEM graduates. And college professors and employers are finding this skills gap should be addressed as early as elementary school so that more students can follow a clear pathway into a STEM job.

“We like to teach what matters in the real world economy and what matters in the job market,” said UC Davis Professor Harry Cheng. “So that’s how we can engage students, because they know what they’re going to learn is for their future career.”

Dr. Cheng observed the skills gap first hand when he realized many of his freshmen engineering students had no experience with computer programming, while he served as director of the UC Davis Center for Integrated Computing and STEM Education. So, Cheng started communicating with K-12 educators about how to get programming into schools. He quickly found out that many schools are limited because they don’t have enough or any computer labs and, more importantly, they don’t have teachers with appropriate training to teach the topic.

That’s when Cheng decided to create the C-STEM Center (computing, science, engineering and math) which promotes a formal and informal K-14 curriculum in STEM (grades 13-14 are two years in community college). The program integrates computer programming and robotics to teach STEM subjects aligned with Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Career and Technical Education (CTE) Standards.

The C-STEM Center has two key objectives: to close the achievement gap by increasing the number of students traditionally underrepresented in STEM-related careers and fields of study and develop 21st century problem-solving skills to tackle real world concerns through integrated computing and STEM education. To achieve these goals, the Center works with school districts on the C-STEM curriculum, conducts a series of trainings with educators at UC Davis and around the state, and holds summer camps and student competitions involving robotics and math programming.

One subject Cheng is focusing on is algebra, a common stumbling block for students. “Algebra is the gatekeeper to a STEM career and STEM subjects,” he said. “With that in mind, we have to re-focus our effort to really work on how to use computing and the tools to help students learn algebra and math at the same time as computer programming.”

Cheng developed a way to teach algebra using computer programming in which the student has to solve a real world problem using knowns and unknowns. Many times without knowing it, the student is doing algebra while coding at the same time.

And the education world is taking notice of the value of the program. Van Ton-Quinlivan, as the vice chancellor of Workforce and Economic Development for the California Community Colleges, noted these skills are key to in-demand jobs across California.

“Many of California’s regions are STEM economies with a demand for computer programming skills,” said Ton-Quinlivan, also a co-lead of the California Economic Summit’s Workforce Action Team. “It’s a competitive advantage to have more Californians know how to code and those who do know have access to a broad range of innovation occupations, many of which probably did not exist 10 years ago.”

Getting more students STEM-career ready will strengthen a region’s workforce as well as alleviate a skills gap economists predict for the state in the next decade.


Nadine Ono

All stories by: Nadine Ono