NBA great promotes STEM education at event

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar bent down Monday to study the solar-powered car being demonstrated by sixth-graders from Miller’s Hill School in Shingle Springs.

The NBA Hall of Famer was at the Sacramento Convention Center to kick off the first-ever California STEM symposium, a two-day event designed to help K-12 educators improve how they teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“By fifth grade, 92percent of boys and 97percent of girls lose interest” in STEM fields, Abdul-Jabbar said. “I’m really stoked to have the opportunity to impact our kids’ lives in a really positive way. That’s what this is all about. That is why I’m here.”

The sold-out event attracted 2,600 California educators to attend workshops on everything from implementing new Common Core state standards – a national movement designed to promote analytical thinking – to ensuring students are prepared for college.

The reason for the symposium was echoed by almost every speaker: STEM jobs are increasing at a rapid pace and California schools aren’t training enough people to fill them. Abdul-Jabbar appeared at the event after being tapped last year by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson as California’s after-school STEM ambassador.

“By 2018 STEM jobs will grow by 45percent,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “Out of the 20 fastest-growing occupations, 15 require significant mathematics or science preparation. Even so ... the U.S. is not graduating nearly enough majors in these fields to supply the enormous demand. Currently only 16percent of U.S. bachelor’s degrees will specialize in STEM.”

On average, he said, those employed in STEM jobs make good money and are less likely to lose their jobs.

The symposium took a special look at increasing the participation of girls and women in STEM classes and professions. Actress Geena Davis, chairwoman of the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, talked about the few women in STEM fields.

“Getting more girls interested in STEM careers is a top priority of our commission,” she said, and called upon the teachers in attendance to be “agents of change.”

The symposium, which organizers said will be an annual event, was hosted by the Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation, the California Department of Education and the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls. It was funded almost entirely by private industry and individual donors, as well as attendance fees, organizers said.

Symposium organizers selected the “best and brightest” teachers across the state to show other educators how to teach STEM in a fun and relevant way, said Muhammed Chaudhry of the Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation. He said they received an “overwhelming” number of applications from teachers who wanted to give presentations at the event.

Teachers in attendance were enthusiastic. Lee Kelly, who teaches advanced-placement biology, and Verenice Vazquez, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science, said they were invigorated after only three hours at the conference. The Newport Mesa Unified School District teachers excitedly talked about the teaching methods they plan to try in their classrooms. “It reignites your passion,” Vazquez said.

Organizers said the symposium is particularly important this year because it coincides with the adoption of new state curriculum guidelines for math and English, as well as the recently released Next Generation Science Standards.

Abdul-Jabbar closed his speech by handing a $100,000 check from his Skyhook Foundation to a representative from the Los Angeles Unified School District, where 82percent of students are from low-income families. The donation will help pay for fourth- and fifth-graders to stay for one week at Camp Skyhook at Clear Creek Outdoor Education Center, said Gerardo Salazar, who administers environmental and outdoor programs for the school district.

The basketball legend said he became California’s after-school STEM ambassador after writing the children’s book “What Color Is My World?” – a history of African American inventors.

“All of a sudden kids came up to me and said, ‘Maybe I can do this,’” he said. “Now they see science and STEM subjects as an option, instead of seeing themselves as, ‘Gee, I have to write a rap song.’ It changes everything.”