Florida home-schoolers dive into STEM

Ron Matus

In the factory’s tiny lobby, a dozen middle-school-aged boys and a handful of parents stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the company president, a soft-spoken man with a pen in his shirt pocket. He held up one precision-crafted, metallic piece after another and explained how angles and radiuses, aluminum and titanium, came together through man and machine to create amazing things. This gizmo goes on a Black Hawk helicopter, he said. This one, on a Javelin missile. And this one?

“You all saw the Curiosity land on Mars?” he asked. Heads nodded. Well, he said, his company made some of the parts for the rockets that got it there.

Inside the boys’ heads, gears turned.

For some of them, this was their third trip to a manufacturing plant in the past month. For kids their age, that would be extraordinary in just about any school, public or private. But in their case, it’s even more unique: They’re home-schooled.

The Trinity Homeschool Academy in Tampa, Fla. emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math – the so-called STEM fields. Director Tonya Walters designed it that way. The mother of three created the all-grade-level network two years ago, aiming to fill an open niche in the home-school community and a gap between what kids don’t learn, in too many settings, and what high-tech, high-wage jobs need them to know.

Especially with the tough economy, “you realize all these college kids with liberal arts degrees can’t get jobs,” Walters said. “I thought, ‘How can I get my kids from point A to point B?’ ”

The academy now serves about 200 students and contracts with 15 teachers. Home school parents pick-and-choose classes in a system Walters calls “a la carte.”

In many ways, Trinity academy is in sync with the new definition of education. Practical, flexible, whatever works. The STEM emphasis defies home-school stereotypes, though the academy does proudly tout a Christian worldview and, in biology, offers some faith-based teachings that would make many scientists pause. At the same time, the academy shows how evolving options beyond traditional public schools are finding ways to bring kids up to speed on skills and knowledge many consider vital.

Last month, Florida officials announced there were 64,000 STEM jobs available, up 9 percent from a year ago. But some fear that many will go unfilled because Florida’s education system isn’t producing enough grads with STEM degrees. There are even a few openings at Southern Manufacturing Technologies, the Tampa plant where the Trinity students learned last month from the president himself about the component parts that 110 workers make for the aircraft, aerospace and defense industries.

“If you’re a machinist and want to work weekends,” president Roy Sweatman told them, “we’ll put you to work right away.”

On top of more traditional courses, Trinity offers engineering for elementary and middle schoolers, beginning and advanced bridge building, computer-assisted design in architecture. It has a robotics club. One of its science teachers routinely brings in critters. Walters said she’ll respond with more offerings as students get older and demand grows for higher-level courses. Chemistry is on tap for next year. Physics, she thinks, won’t be too far beyond that.

STEM Goes to Work is what she bills the field trips to factories.

In recent months, the students visited Valpak in St. Petersburg, where they watched a ballet of robots package coupons, and Alessi Bakery, where a robot sliced cakes but workers did the frosting. The Publix plant in Lakeland and Tampa International Airport are up next.

Field trips like that help “build the pipeline of STEM workers – which we need to do in the U.S.,” said Marilyn Barger, executive director of the Florida Advanced Technological Education Center, in an email. We “need to get more kids interested in STEM careers of all kinds, AND (get) better prepared for them earlier in their education.”

Based at Hillsborough Community College, FLATE helps organize such trips, with nearly 4,000 students seeing STEM in motion since 2006. Trinity is the first and only home-school group it has worked with.

The home-school students who participated in an Oct. 19 field trip to Southern Manufacturing Technologies in Tampa pose for a group photo after their tour. At left is company president Roy Sweatman and Tonya Walters, director of the Trinity Homeschool Academy. Photo courtesy of Tonya Walters.

At Southern Manufacturing, the students and parents split into small groups to tour the plant. Machines lined a floor as big as a high school gym, humming and whirring and sometimes hissing as hoses snaked into the ceiling overhead. Workers stopped to explain what they and their machines do.

“It’s accurate to within 20 millionths of an inch,” one explained, referring to an insanely precise measuring device called a Micro Hite 600. For comparison, he said, “The average hair is three thousands of an inch.”

Students and parents liked what they saw – and learned together.

“It helps my kids understand that something doesn’t come from nothing,” said Michele Wilson, a University of Florida grad who began homeschooling her children two years ago. “Someone had to make that intricate design. It makes them appreciate that job.”

“It takes like 180 tools to make one tiny piece of metal,” said Tonya Walter’s 9-year-old nephew, Josh. “It’s so detailed.”

It’s hard to know whether STEM is getting more traction with other home-schoolers. Neither the Florida Department of Education nor home-school advocate Brenda Dickinson could say.

“Home education is parent directed,” said Chris Fenton, a DOE policy analyst who works in that realm. “Parents love the freedom and they love the fact that they don’t have to tell the state or any particular organization the details of what they’re doing.”

After speaking with redefinED, Dickinson, president of the Home Education Foundation, kindly emailed her contacts to find out if any were focused on STEM. Several responded, but none had a regimen as intense as Trinity’s.

That doesn’t mean they’re not out there, said Mark Fisher, a Hillsborough County firefighter who brought his two sons to the Southern Manufacturing trip. His family is part of another home-school “co-op” that doesn’t have Trinity’s focus, but nonetheless offers classes in computer programming.

Still, he said, what Trinity is doing adds some needed diversity to home-schooling – and to schooling, period.

“There’s going to be a lot of different ways to earn a living in an environment that’s focused on manufacturing with technology behind it,” he said. “I don’t necessarily want my kids to be engineers over being doctors or construction employees or whatever.”

“But I don’t want to limit their choices.”

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