If you think you’ve had a rough day, try coming up with a lesson plan to prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist yet. Go ahead. Think about it.

Maybe you’ll come up with some ideas about teaching kids to think, instead of teaching them how to take a test. Allow kids to dream, you might say. Don’t fear the big ideas.

Unfortunately, many of your students, if they’re in a typical public school, still sit in classrooms that haven’t changed, substantially, for the past 100 years. Kids still sit in rows, the bell goes off like a factory whistle for the jobs of a bygone era. They shuffle from room to room, with many sharing one overwhelming feeling: They are mind-numbingly bored.

New Jersey Education Commissioner Dr. Lamont Repollet played a video during his keynote address at the NJSBA’s Workshop 2018 which dramatized just how dull and ineffective many current classrooms still are. Repollet gets it. He called for broad-based, systemic change — a reimagining of how education is delivered.

That’s where the New Jersey STEM Pathways Network enters the picture. (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.)

The STEM Pathways Network, established in 2014 to support access to high-quality STEM learning for all students, has almost 300 members, with representatives from colleges and universities around the state, and K-12 school districts, including Jersey City, Newark, Camden and Delran. Leaders of some of the state’s biggest businesses—such as PSEG and IBM—are involved. Foundations are supporting the effort, all with one goal in mind: To save the future by making education fun, interesting and relevant.

Kim Case, the executive director of the Research & Development Council, a nonprofit which advocates for public and private partnerships in STEM education in New Jersey, manages the network. She cheerfully acknowledges that it’s a work in progress, a bit like “building a plane while flying it.”

Here’s how it works: The four towns named above form the core of four regional “ecosystems” in New Jersey. The Liberty Science Center leads the Jersey City system. Foundations and universities play key roles in Newark. Camden County College, Rutgers, the Camden Dream Center and Cisco are collaborating with the Camden school district in South Jersey, and Delran’s school superintendent, Dr. Brian Brotschul, works with a dedicated team of teachers in that community.

What does the network look like and sound like?

It can be noisy, especially when hundreds of kids are competing in teams to solve problems and come up with inventions, as they did recently during “hackathons” in Camden and Jersey City. It can be fun, as nearly 500 students and families in Delran will tell you about the STEM Fairs and science programs they’ve attended in that Burlington County suburban community. It can be adventurous, as the dozens of people who rode a bus for a “STEM crawl,” from activity to activity during STEM Month last year can attest.

It can also be a revelation – the shock of excitement kids feel when they are brought together to apply their knowledge and create something new. Jan Morrison is a national consultant whose Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM (TIES) helped build the STEM Pathways Network along with 67 other STEM “ecosystems” around the country. She calls STEM “a state of mind” -— the chance to build a new reality and dream about a hopeful future.

All around New Jersey and the nation, educators are looking to get away from the antiquated concept of how to “do school,” which sounds too much like “doing time” in prison. At Workshop 2018, the NJSBA partnered with the U.S. Army to sponsor a “STEAM Tank” competition. About 400 teams of New Jersey students entered the competition, inventing projects and products; 90 teams were chosen as finalists to present the projects to an audience of judges and educators.

At the same NJSBA Workshop, Steven Van Zandt’s Rock and Roll Forever Foundation sponsored a student film contest, emphasizing the importance of the arts in education. The winning film featured student interviews with musicians all around Atlantic City, sharing the stories of their lives, and how they worked for decades, evolving and changing, in good times and bad, with the city around them.

Working to Prepare Students for Careers Ultimately, the goal of the STEM Pathways Network is to serve as a convener, to bring together the community — including employers — helping students prepare to find their way in the world, while at the same time serving the state and local economy.

The gap between where schools are, and where educators want to take them, is real. The New Jersey School Boards Association, in a recent report on career-focused learners, found that most students who plan to enter the workforce after high school graduation are prepared to do little more than hold a minimum-wage job.

Minority students and women are struggling to enter STEM fields.

For example, only 15 percent of the computer science college graduates in New Jersey were female in 2015. Latino students and black students made up only 9 percent and 3 percent, respectively, of high school students taking the AP computer science exam in 2016, according to an April NJSpotlight.com column by JerseyCAN Co-Chair Ann Borowiec, a leading advocate for education reform.

In October, Gov. Phil Murphy released his master plan for the New Jersey economy. It was essential, according to the master plan, to “create the most diverse innovation ecosystem in the nation and double venture capital investment in the state by bringing approximately 40,000 more women and minorities into STEM fields and attracting $625 million in new venture capital investment.”

How It Began The STEM Pathways Network got started as a way to bring together ambitious plans  for improving schools and education from both inside and outside government.

It began as a grand concept by former New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks in 2014 and the idea has taken off, fueled in part by generous donations from the Overdeck Family Foundation, guidance from the national Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM, and hardworking teachers, curriculum directors, superintendents and graduate students.

In her nearly three decades of government service in the New Jersey Department of Education, and then as the state’s first higher education secretary, Hendricks has spent much of her time trying to bring equity and access to all students. She has been especially devoted to helping improve school districts in disadvantaged neighborhoods. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Educational Leadership Foundation of New Jersey (ELFNJ).

In her travels, she was struck by how many intelligent, passionate educators were building STEM programs around the state. At the same time, she said educators would benefit by networking and sharing information so that they could learn about what their colleagues were doing.

Intrigued, she asked her higher education office to research the number of STEM programs in New Jersey. After finding more than 200 programs, Hendricks sent out an email, inviting about three dozen educators and innovators in the state to attend a meeting to share ideas and work together.

They were all busy people, leaders in their fields. She figured that maybe a dozen people would respond. Instead, every single person accepted the invitation, and some asked if they could bring colleagues.

“One of the things I realized very early on was that there were a number of STEM initiatives throughout the state, at every level: K-12, higher ed, and some that were outside the traditional educational setting, at the libraries and community organizations,” she said. “We discovered we were too often competing for funding, partnerships and airtime.

“The lack of a coordinated effort meant that we were not having the full impact that was possible,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s important to get people in the same room just to make sure the ideas are impactful and systemic.”

Hendricks asked Laura Overdeck, head of the Overdeck Family Foundation, to serve as chair of the group which solicited proposals in 2015. Eleven ambitious plans were submitted from groups around the state. Four were selected. Planning sessions followed. Case, of the Research & Development Council, was brought in to manage the effort and keep it moving.

Recently, the calendar has been filled with important events:

  • Nov. 30: The Delran ecosystem held the Delran Innovation & Fabrication Laboratory Kickoff. New Jersey Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet spoke during the ribbon-cutting event for the new “Fab Lab,” accompanied by state Senator Troy Singleton and Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, both from the 7th District and Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (District 16) — a strong supporter of the STEM Pathways Network. Zwicker is also chair of the Legislature’s new Science, Innovation and Technology Committee.
  • Dec. 5: Case hosted a STEM Funders network meeting at the Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield. Among the attendees were representatives from IBM, Cisco, ExxonMobil, Schneider Electric, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Nokia Bell Labs, the Community Foundation of New Jersey and the Overdeck Foundation.
  • March 2019: The group will celebrate “STEM Month” with activities around the state and an anticipated proclamation from the Governor’s Office, recognizing the group.
  • March 2019: The New Jersey STEM Data Dashboard, featuring useful information for those interested in student achievement in STEM in school districts across the state will make its debut, with help from Rutgers University’s Heldrich Center for Workforce Development.

The time was right for the debut of the STEM Pathways Network, says Case, a board of education member in Long Hill Township, Morris County.

“I had been doing work around STEM since 2009, said Case, “working hard to network across the state with people who had similar interests in supporting excellence in STEM. When Secretary Hendricks invited me to take part in the STEM Pathways Network…it was like the lightbulb went on.

“She was getting all the right people in the room. She was making it easy for us to have the right conversations. Then when she partnered with Laura Overdeck who took the chair of the STEM Pathways Network and brought in the support of her foundation, everything came together.”

In a statement, Overdeck said, “I am proud to chair the New Jersey STEM Pathways Network (NJSPN), which aims to create a statewide vision for STEM education in New Jersey that spans cradle to career.

“NJSPN is committed to not only expanding our students’ academic skills, but also to inspiring them to tackle the toughest problems we face as a society,” said Overdeck, who is also founder and president of Bedtime Math.

Assemblyman Zwicker was asked if the STEM Pathways Network will be important to New Jersey’s future.

“An enthusiastic yes!” said Zwicker. “What Kim and the NJ STEM Pathways Network are doing is critically important.”

Zwicker added that he was impressed by a “Community of Practice” session in Washington, D.C., where he participated in a STEM Pathways panel discussion. You could see, he said, that “this is bigger than New Jersey,” and that communities from around the country were dealing with the same issues.

Former Secretary of Higher Education Hendricks believes the STEM Pathways Network will ultimately help school districts work with community groups and businesses to take STEM education to another level.

STEM is more than technology, she said. It includes design, imagination, and the arts, with the STEM Pathways Network providing a roadmap to the future.

“My hope is that the STEM Pathways Network will evolve into an ecosystem that addresses the challenges of equity and diversity,” Hendricks said, “with our citizens coming together in the state, from all different backgrounds, understanding that each of them has something to give. We will lift up our children, our children will be successful, and our future will be guaranteed.”

For more information on the STEM Pathways Network, contact Kim Case.

Alan Guenther is assistant editor at the NJSBA.  Prior to joining NJSBA, he worked with former Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks for eight years and served on the STEM Pathways Network management committee.