Skip to Content

Huntsville Shows Off Its K-16 STEM Pipeline

Alabama A&M University leaders (l. to r.) Provost Daniel Wims; President Andrew Hugine, Jr.; senior-year computer science student Charlevester Wims; and College of Engineering, Technology, and Physical Sciences Dean Chance Glenn join OII’s STEM executive director, Russell Shilling (second from right), following Education Secretary Arne’s Duncan’s visit to NASA’s Space and Rocket Center. (Photo courtesy of Alabama A&M University)

As Education Secretary Duncan’s bus tour departed Huntsville, Ala., on September 9th, I remained to explore the STEM and technology education programs in the area. Huntsville, home to NASA’s Space and Rocket Center, has the advantage of being a small city with huge resources to support education. I wanted to see what they were doing that might be exported to a wide range of schools across the U.S.

After Secretary Duncan’s visit to the Space and Rocket Center and its Space Camp, I was greeted by the president of Alabama A&M University (AAMU), Dr. Andrew Hugine, Jr., along with staff and students. Once on their beautiful campus, Dr. Chance Glenn, dean of the College of Engineering, Technology, and Physical Sciences, discussed the various programs AAMU has developed to help students pursue and excel in STEM fields.

As of 2012, the college, according to the American Society for Engineering Education, ranked No. 4 of 352 in the production of African American engineers and No. 11 for female engineers. This success is credited to multiple programs that support students at various points in their academic careers. AAMU, for example, provides full, four-year scholarships to 12 STEM Star Scholars, covering their tuitions and fees. The Summer Bridge program, which brings students to the campus for two weeks prior to starting their freshman year, focuses on mathematics, social development, and study skills, as well as a providing a campus orientation.

A roundtable discussion with faculty, staff, and current and past students from engineering, computer science, and the basic sciences concluded a very motivating visit to the AAMU campus.

The following day, I met with the Huntsville City Schools superintendent, Dr. Casey Wardynski, and his staff to discuss their STEM and technology strategies and tour a few of the local schools. At Blossomwood Elementary, I chatted with teachers and students about their work in robotics, information technology, and math. The Huntsville strategy has been to provide iPads for classroom use up to second grade and laptops for the rest of the student population to use at home and in school. Technology use was particularly well integrated in mathematics instruction, but also evident across the curriculum.

At Huntsville Middle School, laptops were again being well utilized in classroom instruction, especially in mathematics. Students were also actively learning to develop computer games in classrooms that have been well adapted for group work. I was particularly impressed by the school’s collaboration with the Elizabeth Forward school system in Pennsylvania. A particularly innovative application developed at Elizabeth Forward was being used to demonstrate linear progressions. In the application, students physically interact with a room-sized screen projected on the floor combined with sensors to track their movements. It’s a very good example of how hubs of innovation in local areas can propagate leading practices and why we need to continue to build opportunities to bring these innovators together.

Russell Shilling (center) joins faculty and students at the Huntsville Center for Technology to learn about Greenpower Team USA. The Huntsville City Schools, which was the only U.S. competitor in last year’s international Greenpower competition, is expanding participation in the unique STEM learning initiative. (Photo courtesy of the Huntsville City Schools)

Russell Shilling (center) joins faculty and students at the Huntsville Center for Technology to learn about Greenpower Team USA. The Huntsville City Schools, which was the only U.S. competitor in last year’s international Greenpower competition, is expanding participation in the unique STEM learning initiative. (Photo courtesy of the Huntsville City Schools)

One of the most interesting aspects of the schools tour was the visit to the Huntsville Center for Technology, where I was introduced to Greenpower Team USA. Last October, Huntsville students competed in an international competition held in the U.K. to design, build, and test electric cars. The cars are built from scratch, including the aerodynamic composite bodies.

The Huntsville team won the Best Newcomer Award and the Siemens Innovator Award their first time out, placing 10th out of 32 competitors in the 90-minute race and 32nd out of 74 competitors in the four-hour race. Speeds average around 30 mph, but duration and durability are the primary goals. They were the only team outside of the U.K. in the finals. Team Huntsville has brought the concept home to the U.S., building test tracks around several Huntsville high schools to increase student participation citywide. And with the U.K. competitions including a category for 9- to 11-year-olds, which uses “Goblin Car” kits that average top speeds of 15 mph, Greenpower is an engaging way for STEM learning to reach a wide age range of students.

Clearly, Huntsville benefits from some unique local assets not available to all school systems, but many others could learn from the city’s leadership in developing technology integration strategies and their hands-on approach to STEM education.

Russell Shilling is Executive Director of STEM in the Office of Innovation and Improvement.