Kansas City: KC STEM Alliance’s Senior Capstone Innovation Experience
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What would a framework that connects education to industry look like?
Kansas City’s key industries — from global design to health science and advanced manufacturing — fall squarely into the world of STEM. The region’s emergence as a thriving hub for tech, entrepreneurship, innovation, and the arts make it a natural hotspot for incubating new approaches to STEM education.
KC STEM Alliance
Building on the promise of nationally proven curricula and tapping into the city’s entrepreneurial spirit, KC STEM Alliance connects educators and industry, strengthening students’ ability to problem solve. When students solve real problems that are relevant to their lives, they transform what they’ve learned in the classroom into skills they need to thrive — no matter which education or career path they choose.
Moving students from academic exercises to an authentic, career-oriented experience requires consistent connections with professionals in the workplace. That's why the KC STEM Alliance’s Senior Capstone Innovation Experience strategy builds a shared framework to connect high school seniors with professionals in science, technology, and engineering at multiple points throughout the academic year. These touchpoints broaden students’ outlook, enhance their work, and provide real-world feedback.
KC STEM Alliance's Commitment
By leveraging a consistent curriculum across multiple districts and schools, the program builds a community of practice among local teachers and creates a common currency for engaging employers in the mentoring process. These mentoring connections also advance local workforce development initiatives and provide meaningful volunteer experiences for STEM professionals. Along the way, students practice essential skills such as presenting ideas, team building, and collaborating.
Since 2015, industry professionals have invested an estimated 2,500+ volunteer hours to inform the work of nearly 2,400 students from 50 schools. Teachers report that the community of peers and professionals created through the capstone program creates meaningful connections for themselves and their students. Industry partners report the shared framework helps strategically align their philanthropic, workforce development, and education initiatives. And perhaps most importantly, students report that the experience helps guide their decisions about what’s next in their lives, with 86 percent reporting plans to pursue STEM degrees and 90 percent reporting that this program reinforced that decision.
Examples and Highlights:
The Senior Capstone Innovation Experience starts early in the academic year with workshops for students enrolled in capstone courses in engineering and biomedical science through Project Lead The Way, a project-based STEM education curriculum for P-12 students. Each workshop convenes multiple schools to provide a larger professional experience for students, and each includes a keynote speaker and small breakout groups where students refine their project ideas with mentors from related fields. A round robin format introduces students to mentors from a variety of disciplines, building their social capital. Students still searching for project ideas brainstorm with mentors from Kansas City’s entrepreneurial community.
Students choose to address an array of problems, from improving gear they use in daily life (such as backpacks and athletic equipment) to larger issues such as disease detection, clean water, and homelessness. Students and their teachers leave the workshop with a list of mentors they can tap throughout the project.
To motivate students as they work through their projects, scholarship competitions reward exemplary work in design, research, and innovative problem solving. Rigorous judging by professionals provides project validation while engaging industry mentors and post-secondary partners. Innovator Awards, which recognize projects for innovation and market potential, actively engage Kansas City’s startup community and introduce students to the exciting world of entrepreneurship.
A spring showcase brings hundreds of students together in a festive, regional event to celebrate their work with mentors, the business community, post-secondary institutions, family, and friends. The event bridges education and industry by bringing the curriculum to life as students share their solutions. Winning projects in the 2020 competition ranged from early detection of ectopic pregnancies to a modified kitchen utensil that uses ultraviolet light to detect salmonella in eggs.
Students passionate about their projects then receive invitations to an in-depth workshop where they can pitch their ideas to business mentors and learn about the entrepreneurial mindset. This mindset includes the ability to think of problems as a set of challenges to solve; the acceptance of failure as part of the learning process, and a drive for continuous improvement — characteristics that will serve young people well regardless of their chosen career path.