CharterFolk Contributor Mr. Fatih Ay – STEM Innovation – A Trail That Must Perpetually be Blazed

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Mr. Fatih Ay, CEO of Harmony Public Schools.

Mr. Fatih Ay, CEO, Harmony Public Schools

I provide Fatih’s bio below.

Fatih Ay, the CEO of Harmony Public Schools (HPS), has been devoted to empowering students since 2004. With an impressive 23 years of educational experience, he brings a wealth of knowledge to his role. Previously, Mr. Ay served as the esteemed Dallas Area superintendent of Harmony Public Schools for 9 years and was the founding principal of Harmony Science Academy-El Paso. Throughout his career, he has held positions as an assistant principal, science teacher, and coach, contributing to various curricular teams.

Mr. Ay holds a master’s degree in education, specializing in instructional technology, and a bachelor’s degree in Physics. As the CEO/Superintendent, he is deeply committed to several key initiatives that drive student success within HPS. His focus lies in the advancement of instructional technology, STEM education, college and career readiness initiatives, as well as providing post-secondary support for students.

In addition to his dedication to education, he is highly engaged in community service. He actively serves as a board member for the Texas Public Charter Schools Association, where he contributes his expertise to further the mission of providing quality education to students. Furthermore, he holds the esteemed position of a senior fellow at the American Leadership Forum, where he leverages his leadership skills and knowledge to foster positive change within the community.

With his strong commitment to both education and community service, Mr. Ay exemplifies the values of Harmony Public Schools and continues to make a lasting impact on the lives of students and families throughout the Lone Star State.

Harmony Public Schools, a Texas-born public charter school, serves as a beacon of education for over 40,000 students and their families across the Lone Star State. With a strong emphasis on academic excellence and community involvement, HPS continues to make a positive impact in the lives of its students and the communities it serves.

STEM Innovation – A Trail That Must Perpetually be Blazed

When Harmony Public Schools opened its school doors for the first time in 2000, a school focused primarily on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) was a novelty.

We weren’t the only STEM newcomer to make a splash around that time, though.

Within a few months of Harmony welcoming its first class of students, two items that transformed the personal relationship humans have with STEM made their world debut: the USB thumb drive (late 2000) and the Apple iPod (fall 2001).

Both products were the result of decades of innovation. Both have also since been surpassed by decades of innovation that followed.

Being an innovator in STEM education is similar.

With nationally-competitive drone clubs and classrooms taking place in multiple modalities – in-person, online, virtual reality, and augmented reality – Harmony Public Schools is definitely not the same STEM school we were 20 years ago.

But we’re also not the same school we will be 20 years from now.

We understand that being an innovator is not just a status that an organization achieves. Innovation is a trail that must perpetually be blazed.

At Harmony, we’ve been fortunate to have support from so many sources in blazing this trail – first and foremost, our school teams. We’ve also relied on key partnerships with like-minded organizations who see how Harmony’s STEM program is a critical pipeline for creating a future workforce equipped with the skills it needs to compete globally, while also being representative of its community locally.

Early on, Harmony gained the support of the Communities Foundation of Texas, one of the state’s largest philanthropic organizations. Through the foundation’s Texas High School Project (now Educate Texas), Harmony was able to build a high school STEM curriculum that quickly became the talk of the state. For example, of the roughly 100 high schools each year certified as official Texas STEM Academies, 23 perennially came from Harmony – by far more than any other school system in the state.

These victories paved the way for future opportunities. Soon, organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Dell Foundation threw their support behind Harmony.

Working with these partners and others, we’re continuing to blaze new trails in STEM education in four key areas.

First, Harmony is continuing to lead the way in innovative STEM curricula and programming for our students.

At Harmony, through vertical alignment of our STEM curriculum from kindergarten up, our students begin learning key STEM fundamentals early on so by the time they reach middle school they are prepared to take on one of our STEM career pathways, start working toward an industry-based certification (IBC) or challenge themselves with career technical education (CTE) coursework. For example, whereas most school systems might introduce concepts of coding for a select few students as they begin to approach their late-elementary or early middle school years, at Harmony all of our students begin learning text-based coding starting in early elementary. By high school, these students will have all the skills they need to begin receiving real-world work experience in one of our related career pathways, such as robotics, cybersecurity, computer science, or engineering design.

To enhance our STEM curriculum, Harmony also provides a variety of pioneering STEM clubs and programs. For example, Harmony was among the first schools in the nation to launch an underwater robotics program, which quickly received an endorsement from the United States Navy. In the years that followed, similar programs popped up in other school systems across the U.S. Now, Harmony is taking the next step in engaging STEM programming with popular extracurricular clubs such as esports and drone piloting. In both programs, our students are competing at the national level, and often against college students. And these programs aren’t just fun: They each have the potential to create college scholarships and future career opportunities.

In addition to these existing academic clubs and programs, Harmony Public Schools is committed to providing additional extended and work-based learning activities for students in the future. We believe that participation in academic competitions, such as science fairs, math Olympiads, robotics challenges, and coding competitions, can enrich students’ learning experiences and foster their passion for STEM subjects. These activities not only allow students to apply their knowledge and skills in real-world contexts but also provide opportunities for collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving.

To remain at the forefront of technology-based STEM education, Harmony is piloting augmented reality and virtual reality integration in classrooms, enabling students to explore subjects like Algebra, Geometry, Biology, and many others in immersive and interactive ways. Additionally, the development of a vertically aligned PreK-12 computational skills program (COMP3) aims to equip students with advanced computational skills, allowing them to excel in their AP Computer Science classes and beyond.

Second, Harmony leads in connecting PreK-12 learning to future college and career opportunities.

As part of this commitment, Harmony strives to increase the number of students earning industry-based certifications, ensuring they are equipped with the specific skills and credentials sought after by employers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17% between 2020 and 2030, much faster than the average for non-STEM occupations. This means there will be a high demand for workers with STEM skills in the coming years.

Connecting our students to these high-paying, highly-specialized career opportunities is critical in not only helping our students thrive but also uplifting the traditionally underserved communities our students typically come from.

Harmony’s goal is to empower students to earn certifications that align with their interests and career goals. By empowering students to earn industry-based certifications, Harmony Public Schools equips them with a competitive edge and increases their employability. These certifications validate students’ expertise in specific STEM fields and provide tangible evidence of their skills to potential employers and higher education institutions.

As a system, about 57 percent of our students choose STEM majors in college, compared to roughly 36 percent nationwide.

We’re also helping to close the gender gap in STEM careers. Nationally, women comprise only about 29 percent of the STEM workforce, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. However, among our Harmony graduates who go on to pursue STEM careers, the split between males and females is almost equal: 51 percent male, 49 percent female.

Similarly, we’re also helping to correct an imbalance of STEM career opportunities for students of color. At Harmony, our students of color graduate college with STEM degrees at double or more than the national average.

This diversification will have a lasting impact, as research shows that students are far more likely to pursue degree fields and jobs when they’ve seen others from their families and communities succeed.

Third, Harmony is pioneering the convergence of STEM learning with one of our other critical missions: character education.

Of our 61 campuses, 22 have been named official Texas State Schools of Character by the education-focused nonprofit Seven others have been named official National Schools of Character by the organization (with hopefully more good news to come in May regarding a few additional designations).

While STEM and character education can be seen as two very distinct disciplines, our industrious students continue to find new and inspiring ways to blend the two in ways that spark the imagination and uplift their communities.

For example, in Spring 2023 alone …

  • At Harmony School of Endeavor-Austin, 8th graders Ahyan Hassan and Hasan Rizvi won one of the state’s top prizes in engineering technology for their invention of a smart cane to assist the visually impaired. The cane features sonar technology that detects obstacles in its user’s path before they’re even encountered, then delivers targeted vibrations to the cane’s handle depending on which side of the user the obstacle will be.
  • At Harmony School of Innovation-Dallas, high school students built custom electric cars – similar to a Power Wheel – for pediatric patients at Scottish Rite for Children Hospital in Dallas. The two cars – one in classic white, and one in electric pink – can be controlled more easily and safely than traditional electric cars, thanks to several design improvements made by our student engineers, including additional railings, seat supports, and a simple-to-use joystick to replace the original steering wheels.
  • At Harmony School of Excellence-El Paso, elementary students proved that recycling isn’t just good for the environment – it can also be good for the wardrobe. This Earth Day, students held a “Trashion” show featuring unique clothing designs handmade from recycled materials. More than just a fun project, though, HSE’s “Trashion” show may hint at the wave of the fashion industry’s future, as several major brands – including Nike, Target, and others – have recently introduced product lines made at least partially out of recycled or sustainable materials.

Finally, fourth, Harmony Public Schools continually seeks to create new opportunities for the charter school community by fostering innovative partnerships.

As part of its vision, Harmony aims to establish more industry-based partnerships that provide internship and apprenticeship opportunities for students, bridging the gap between classroom learning and real-world experiences.

The school’s early adoption and advocacy for Project Lead The Way (PLTW) have set industry standards for connecting STEM learning with real-world applications in K-12 education. By collaborating with local businesses, industries, and organizations, Harmony will expand internship programs that offer students hands-on experiences in fields such as robotics, cybersecurity, computer science, and engineering design. These partnerships not only expose students to the latest industry practices but also provide valuable networking opportunities and a deeper understanding of career pathways.

Furthermore, Harmony Public Schools recognizes the importance of equipping students with the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in the workforce. Through strategic alliances with industry leaders, such as technology companies, research institutions, and healthcare organizations, Harmony seeks to provide apprenticeship opportunities that allow students to gain practical skills, work alongside professionals, and develop a strong foundation for their future careers.

By fostering these industry-based partnerships, Harmony Public Schools empowers students to explore their passions, discover their strengths, and make informed decisions about their academic and career paths. These real-world experiences not only enhance students’ technical competencies but also cultivate essential soft skills such as teamwork, problem-solving, and effective communication.

At Harmony Public Schools, we would not be able to provide these programs and opportunities without the decades of education innovation that preceded them. Similarly, one day we’ll be able to see how today’s programs helped propel us toward tomorrow’s next great innovation in STEM learning.

When we do, we’ll be able to look at our students and know that we have equipped them to blaze their own trails of innovation, as well.