Some members of the Michigan House of Representatives are demonstrating financial commitment to improving science, technology, engineering and mathematics education at all levels.

Representatives Adam Zemke (D–Ann Arbor) and Bill Rogers (R–Brighton) announced this week that they had secured $375,000 of the state’s budget for the Michigan STEM Partnership, a public-private collaborative focused on improving STEM education and providing children with the skills necessary to thrive in an evolving advanced economy.

The funds will support a competitive grant program available to organizations that provide classroom or extracurricular STEM programs for students, from pre-kindergarten to the college level across the state.

Though criteria for these competitive grants have not yet been determined, Barbara Bolin, executive director of STEM Partnership, said the grants will be awarded to programs that create project-based learning activities that involve the students in applying classroom knowledge.

STEM proponents say they are placing a heavy emphasis on project-based learning because students tend to learn best when they apply their knowledge in real-world contexts.

Zemke said he believes the hands-on, project-based learning inherent in STEM education will make students more enthusiastic about school.

“Kids get really excited about technical stuff when they actually get to put their hands on it and can connect the dots with an instructor,” he said.

Bolin sees STEM’s active approach to learning as a better alternative to traditional methods.

“Sitting (students) in classrooms and lecturing to them and working exercise after exercise from a textbook have not been very effective, and consequently students become disengaged — they don’t see the point of what they’re being asked to learn,” she said.

Bolin and Zemke said grant money could be awarded to iniaitives like the High School Enterprise Program, in which a team of students operate as and deal with practical matters of a company; the A World In Motion program, which incorporates the laws of physics, motion, flight and electronics into hands-on activities; as well as technical competition teams, such as the University’s Solar Car team.

Zemke said he’s concerned with the state’s significant shortage of engineers. In addition to improving engagement with young students, STEM education is essential to the health of Michigan’s manufacturing-driven economy, he said.

While explicit budgetary commitments to STEM education are more recent, Michigan has long placed an emphasis on math and science as it established the Mathematics and Science Centers Program in 1988. According to its website, it has since grown to a network of 33 regional centers that “provide leadership, curriculum support, professional development, and student services to educators.”

The $375,000 grant to the STEM Partnership comes as part of a $500,000 budget increase to the science and math center budget for fiscal year 2014, and a 3-percent increase to the overall education budget.

Zemke said, “If we want successful students to come out of our public education system, we need to help all levels.”

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