May 27, 2014 at 1:00 am

Mackinac Policy Conference to focus on links between STEM curriculum, prosperity

Troy High School seniors Erik Soreide, left, and Michelle Babst watch as their solar powered model car competes in a race. (Jose Juarez / Special to The Detroit News)

Troy — The smell of embalming fluid permeates the air inside Rob Zynda’s human anatomy and physiology class as students hunch over cat cadavers and get to work labeling parts for a practical exam.

But this is no college or university setting — it’s Troy High School in Oakland County, where multiple advanced science and math offerings in grades 9-12 are barely enough to meet demand from the district’s student body.

And it’s the kind of curriculum, rich in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math, that Michigan business leaders want more of inside the state’s K-12 schools. They say STEM learning is needed to produce college-bound and career-ready kids and create a highly trained workforce to drive job growth in the state.

“What they are doing now is a very college-esque experience, a lab practical (exam),” Zynda said. “It’s timed. ... There are 85 questions. These are their cats and they had to go through and find all these structures.”

STEM, its role in education and its link to economic prosperity, will be the focus of a panel discussion today at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s 2014 Mackinac Policy Conference. Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the chamber, said STEM was selected as a conference pillar due to its importance in creating a globally competitive Michigan.

“Employers go where they can access the best talent. Michigan’s ability to compete in the global economy will increasingly correlate with the ability of schools and universities to provide quality STEM education,” Baruah said. “Amidst today’s talent war, the regions that have the most engineers and high-tech workers will thrive.

“In effect, you could argue that Michigan’s economic fate is tied to the quality of STEM curriculum it provides tomorrow’s workforce,” he said.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in STEM-related occupations is projected to grow to more than 9 million by 2022.

As employers seek a broad talent pool, calls to improve education in the STEM fields have become more urgent.

The education community has stepped up efforts to rethink and revamp how students are educated in those subjects and groomed for technical careers. In 2006, Michigan enacted a rigorous set of statewide graduation requirements called the Michigan Merit Curriculum. It requires four credits in math and three in science.

Education leaders say the goal is to prepare Michigan’s students with the knowledge and skills needed for the jobs of the 21st century. Yet as of last year, statewide assessments show Michigan students are still not very good at science or math.

In the 2012-13 school year, 33.3 percent of Michigan students met ACT benchmarks in math, while 23.1 percent met benchmarks in science.

Bob Floden, co-founder of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, said the new standards — the Common Core for math, the proposed Next Generation Standards for science and the MMC for high school graduation requirements — have become more rigorous.

“These represent substantial changes in what we expect kids to know to be college- and career-ready,” Floden said. “We need to make changes to curriculum and teaching to make that happen.”

Teachers need more professional development to meet the higher standards and better materials to lift student proficiency in both subjects, he said. In turn, that will help students learn at higher levels that involve critical thinking.

“It’s not just about learning. It’s about carrying out the work of science in biology and labs,” he said. “And in math, it’s not just being able to understand how to solve problems, but how to justify the answer to your teacher.”

This spring, Troy High was ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the sixth-best STEM school in the nation. It offers dozens of honors and Advanced Placement courses in science, math, industrial technology and engineering.

Troy High School principal Mark Dziatczak said 70 to 80 percent of graduates annually exceed the three-credit graduation requirement for science

The success is based on three factors, Dziatczak said: students’ desire to take the advanced coursework, a highly dedicated staff of educators who immerse themselves and their students in the work, and financial support by the board of education to provide the equipment, materials and environment students need for such hands-on experiences in CAD labs, anatomy classes and robotics.

“We have very committed and talented students. They sign up to take these classes. They talk to teachers and say they want this,” Dziatczak said. “We have outstanding teachers that are constantly are looking out into STEM fields that will do just about anything to make sure we have the greatest opportunity for kids.”

Troy High School teacher Rob Zynda, far right, oversees a test, where ... (Jose Juarez / Special to The Detroit News)