STEMStarter: A High School Capstone Course to Create STEM Career Pathways

STEMStarter: A High School Capstone Course to Create STEM Career Pathways


High school capstone courses—culminating educational experiences for seniors as they conclude their formal high school education—have become increasingly popular across the nation, particularly in New England. The STEMStarter Capstone was designed to help Connecticut high schools meet new accreditation standards from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) and graduation requirements that include a mastery-based learning project. Standard 2 of the NEASC 2020 Standards (2018) for school accreditation states: “Students are active learners and have the opportunity to lead their own learning.” Methods to effectively meet this principle include

  • learning that is personalized, relevant, and authentic;
  • opportunities for students to determine outcomes;
  • project-based activities;
  • opportunities for students to apply knowledge to authentic tasks;
  • opportunities for student choice and the ability to explore personal interests; and
  • opportunities for students to learn in and out of school (NEASC 2017).

A traditional capstone course asks students to first conduct research on a topic of interest, then to produce some type of final written report or portfolio or give a presentation that summarizes and demonstrates student learning. While traditional capstone projects increase students’ knowledge in a particular area, they do not necessarily build the STEM or workforce skills that today’s economy demands. Many capstone projects, including the new AP Capstone course sequence of AP Seminar and AP Research, have intense and rigorous research requirements but do not expose students to job opportunities, non-cognitive skills, entrepreneurship, or business skills. This is troubling because STEM jobs in Connecticut have grown three times faster than non-STEM jobs over the last decade, and two-thirds of state GDP growth is driven by STEM innovations (Next Generation Connecticut 2013). Despite promising opportunities, high school student interest in STEM careers has not increased significantly and in some cases has actually declined in the United States (Project Tomorrow 2014). In addition, to maintain America’s economic competitiveness in the global market, encouraging American innovation and entrepreneurship is critical (Atkinson and Ezell 2013).

Instead of concluding the school year by turning in a long research report, over 100 STEMStarter Capstone students come together in a huge theater dome to show off their projects at individual booths. This is the culminating event for the Skills21 STEMStarter Capstone, and the excitement in the dome is palpable. On their tables are working prototypes of student-created innovations. iPads and laptops display student-designed interactive websites. Judges walk the aisles and ask probing questions about the projects. One student demonstrates his running vest designed for safety. With the squeeze of a button, he shows the judges that an emergency alert message can be sent to a cell phone to indicate that the runner needs help, including the runner’s exact GPS coordinates. Another student has a judge sit in an office chair to demonstrate that when the judge does not sit with correct posture, a light near the computer illuminates. A third student shows the judges the foundation, eyeshadow, and lipstick that she made from all natural products, inspired by her friend who had to undergo chemotherapy and could not use makeup with any artificial ingredients or chemicals.

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