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To Solve for STEM Inequities, JFF Partners with Tennessee Department of Education on Work-Based Learning Initiative

March 29, 2022

At a Glance

Twenty public schools will receive grants to partner with local colleges and employers to expand opportunities for students.

Lee Domeika Director
Lauren Miller Program Manager
Anna O'Connor Senior Director
Practices & Centers Topics

As STEM and computer science fields continue to expand and evolve through new advancements, discoveries, and technologies, a trained labor force must expand to meet the need. A wide range of students, workers, and instructors with STEM knowledge and skills is vital for continued innovation and progress. Despite industry growth in STEM fields, such as physical science and computing, key populations including Black and Latinx workers, and female workers of all backgrounds, remain underrepresented in the STEM labor force.

Both educators and employers can play a tangible role in facilitating stronger education and workforce pathways for students, and building proportional representation. Public schools in Tennessee are planning to better prepare and support students for opportunities in this growing field through STEM and computer science dual enrollment work-based courses, a form of work-based learning developed by Jobs for the Future (JFF). JFF has selected six public high schools as recipients of its inaugural Tennessee SySTEM grant to support this initiative, which focuses on designing dual enrollment work-based courses to better support the advancement of Black, Latinx, low-income, and female students in STEM and computer science. It’s our belief that access to work-based learning opportunities through supportive and inclusive work-based courses will prove crucial for students, offering on-the-job learning and intensive support that will allow for stronger and smoother navigation to and through the field of STEM and computer science.

Opportunities and Challenges in STEM Education

State by state, investment in STEM workforce fields continues to grow, in part because stronger access to STEM and computer science fields for underrepresented communities can have a strong economic impact. Tennessee plans to add nearly 30,000 new STEM-related positions by 2026 with the potential to offer financial stability and help close the racial wealth gap. The median salary of STEM industry workers in the state is over $70,000, more than double the median salary of all employed Tennesseans.

Despite this, Tennessee’s interest and aptitude for STEM among high school students remain stagnant. For example, STEM interest in Tennessee has remained below 50 percent since 2016, particularly amongst Black, Latinx, and young women students. Additionally, of that percentage of students who expressed interest in STEM fields, less than 30 percent met the ACT STEM benchmarks.

The problem is not exclusive to Tennessee: According to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of employment data, women and individuals who identify as Black and/or Latinx are less likely to earn degrees in STEM than in other degree fields, and they continue to make up a lower share of STEM graduates and workers in relevant competitive fields. One reason for this may be the lack of support and exposure students receive in secondary and postsecondary to pursue these fields further—in the United States, two out of three women say they were not encouraged to pursue a career in STEM throughout high school.

Occupational segregation also plays a factor: the percentage of Black Americans among college graduates with degrees in computer science and computer engineering has been found to be twice as high as the percentage of Black Americans in the workforces of leading tech companies. Currently, Black and Latinx individuals represent less than ten percent of workers in computing and engineering jobs nationwide.

Dual Enrollment as a Strategy for Success

The Tennessee SySTEM grant, developed in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) and funded via an Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant through the U.S. Department of Education, aims to address these disparities by supporting STEM and computer science-focused dual enrollment work-based courses. Course content will be taught through applied learning that uses the workplace as a “learning lab,” enabling students to simultaneously experience college-level courses, gain credit, and practice workplace skills on-the-job that may prepare them for STEM and computer science programs and careers. Evidence shows that work-based learning can improve academic outcomes at the secondary and postsecondary levels, support positive youth development and employability skills, and help lead students and workers to improved job quality later in life.

Successful work-based courses depend on strong partnerships between local school districts, postsecondary institutions, and employers. Among the Tennessee grant recipients, Southwind High School, for example, is drawing on the anticipated increase in Mechatronics jobs in the area. The Mechatronics work-based course offered at Southwest Tennessee Community College will allow students to learn the basic electrical components needed to work in the field and a partnership with KTG USA will give students hands-on experience. Other high schools are utilizing work opportunities on their own campuses: Students enrolled in the Alcoa High School work-based course will experience the ins and outs of working in tech support through the Alcoa City Schools Technology Department. They will also be working towards their Comp TIA certification and receiving college credits from Pellissippi State Community College.

Expansion Ahead

Over the next four years, up to twenty Tennessee public schools will be selected to receive a Tennessee SySTEM work-based course grant to engage in this work. These high schools and their associated postsecondary and employer partners will receive technical assistance led by JFF and become part of a community of practice engaged in designing and delivering work-based courses and sharing best practices.

The Tennessee SySTEM Grant evaluation will be led by the American Institute for Research (AIR). The evaluation will test the feasibility of work-based courses as a strategy to improve students’ college and career readiness as well as STEM and computer science skill attainment.

At the end of the grant, a robust suite of publications will be released to the broader workforce and education field to support widespread work-based course replication. In the meantime, please be sure to check out the preliminary Tennessee Work-Based Courses Blueprint from JFF that serves as guidance for schools to begin planning and designing their courses and covers topics related to partnership development and equitable course design.

List of current Tennessee SySTEM Work-Based Course awarded schools and associated partners:

Alcoa High School – Alcoa, TN

  • Associated partners: TN College of Applied Technology, Pellissippi State Community College, Alcoa City Schools Technology Department and Library

Bartlett High School – Bartlett, TN

  • Associated partners: University of Memphis, TCAT Memphis, Bartlett Chamber of Commerce, Bartlett Tech Department, Greater Memphis Medical Device Council, West TN STEM Hub, LSI Graphics, TechED2Go

Clinton High School – Clinton, TN

  • Associated partners: Roane State Community College, Central Technology, Inc., Anderson County Office of Tech

Northeast High School – Clarksville, TN

  • Associated partners: Nashville State Community College, Tech Department of the Clarksville Montgomery County School System

Oak Ridge High School – Oak Ridge, TN

  • Associated partners: Roane State Community College, Oak Ridge Tool Engineering, TN Tool and Engineering, Lokar, Boys and Girls Club

Southwind High School – Memphis, TN

  • Southwest Tennessee Community College, KTG USA

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