The inaugural year of North Hall High School’s STEM Academy had a bit of a shaky start.
“The STEM program got a late start last year, so we didn’t get into the application process like the rest of the programs of choice did quite so early,” Assistant Principal Ley Hathcock said. “So we ended up with a very diverse mixture of kids, which we were a little worried about. We have everyone from football players in there to the band to the nerdy kids.”
But despite the program not having the desired number of initial applicants, Hathcock estimated around 100 students applied for the science, technology, engineering and math focus for the next school year.
“There is a body of kids out there that really, really want a STEM-type education,” he said.
The classes have been promoted on national, state and local levels to get young people interested in careers in those fields.
The STEM Georgia website explains that the curriculum combines the disciplines and focuses on problem solving, discovery and student initiative.
Programs like North Hall’s are becoming more prevalent in curriculum, including pathways designed by state officials to lead students to careers.
The three pathways — engineering and technology, engineering drafting and design, and electronics — involve classes such as intro to drafting and engineering concepts.
Ean Sonnier teaches the drafting and design class at Flowery Branch High School. He said he’s seen interest grow in the program, both in Hall County and in the previous district where he taught, but there’s still one group the topics have not captured.
“Right now, I want to say across seven classes that I have, I want to say at most I have nine or 10 girls total,” he said. “There are not many girls taking our classes, and I don’t know why that is.”
Out of the 20 students in North Hall’s program this year, four are girls.
“The coolest thing that happened this year, right now we’ve accepted I think around 36 kids,” Hathcock said. “Eighteen of those are girls. And we did absolutely nothing to select by gender at all.
“I was absolutely blown away,” he said. “It’s a phenomenal thing, and those represent kids from all over the county and a few from outside of the county. The majority are from North Hall Middle School, which is next door.”
Gainesville system officials are also looking at how they can bring more students to a growing STEM program in the high school.
“There is a great push to encourage females to go into those areas,” Gainesville High Principal LaCrisia Larkin said, adding she is noticing more girls taking “traditionally male” classes, like construction.
“They kind of latched onto that and are really doing some things there that we’re happy about,” she said.
She also pointed out the two system STAR students this year, Helly Patel from Gainesville City Schools and Joanne Jacob from Hall County School District, “love math.”
“That’s rather interesting,” she said. “So I think maybe it’s a trend.”
Regardless of gender, teachers and school officials are still trying to figure out how to get students interested in those fields. Gainesville High math teacher Chandra Karnati said the loss of interest occurs between fifth and eighth grades.
“Somewhere along the way, we are losing them,” he said. “I think as a whole there is an interest of the students in the STEM areas, but not as much as we’d like to see.”
According to Karnati, the loss of interest is in all students regardless of academic level.
“Let’s say there are 100 gifted students in fifth grade,” he continued. “Fifty girls and 50 boys. When we get to the point where we see the STEM areas, probably you may see 10-20 girls interested, and maybe 30-40 boys.”
To change the loss of interest as students mature, teachers are working together to make sure the early-level classes fit more closely with the upper-level classes. Karnati explained he was corresponding with a middle school math teacher to discuss what skills those students would need when they make it up to high school.
“We’ve started talking to each other more than before, and definitely I think that is positive,” he said.
Sonnier helped draft some of the Georgia standards for the STEM high school pathway, and said it is a concern of bringing in not just girls, but a diverse group of students.
He said more students are showing interest because there’s more of an emphasis in the lower grade levels, but added it may be as simple as changing the advertising.
“If you look at any of the (marketing) material, it usually is showing a student who is usually male,” he said. “He’s Caucasian. You don’t really see anything other than that. There are no elements to it that would make you feel like it’s for everybody. It’s really centered on one demographic.”