Sandy Stone often stops in the middle of a reading or social studies lesson with an unexpected request for her third-graders: "We need to put on our engineering hats."

She and other teachers at the Richfield STEM School are embedding engineering lessons into every subject -- from learning about structural mechanics after a lesson on the recent Japan earthquake to taking apart tools after studying Native American history.

"Everything I do revolves around this -- engineering," she said. "We need kids right now excited about engineering, math and science. These are the jobs of the future."

The K-5 school is infused with science, technology, engineering and math curriculum -- hence the acronym STEM. It opened last fall and celebrated last week the fact that it now has 21 teachers who are STEM-certified.

It's one of about 40 STEM programs and schools across Minnesota. The STEM initiatives are spreading nationwide, spurred by an increased emphasis on science and math and pressure to fill a job market void with future engineers and science-savvy students.

South of the river, the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district turned William Byrne Elementary into a STEM magnet school in 2009, and Metcalf Junior High in Burnsville started a STEM program this school year. West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan plans to launch STEM magnets at Pilot Knob Elementary in Eagan and Heritage Middle School in West St. Paul next year.

In the west metro area, nearly every district from Bloomington to Waconia has some STEM initiative in place.

Rockford Schools will open a STEM middle school magnet program next fall. Richfield's Academy of Holy Angels will start a STEM pilot project. St. Louis Park High School will start a STEM academy within the school in two years. The St. Louis Park district and many others, such as Minnetonka and Westonka, offer "Engineering is Elementary," a science and math unit for elementary students centered around a storybook.

Many districts such as Hopkins, Minnetonka and Waconia also offer "Project Leads the Way," a pre-engineering program for middle and high school students.

"It's finally catching on," Westonka Assistant Superintendent Mark Femrite said of STEM initiatives. "I think in a couple years it will become the standard practice."

Spreading like wildfire

Last year, Orono started a STEM middle school program that expanded to the high school this year. In Chaska and Chanhassen, teachers are receiving training at the Science Museum of Minnesota this summer to boost the district's STEM curriculum, which is embedded in all elementary schools.

And next fall, Eden Prairie will start STEM in two to three fifth-grade classrooms at every elementary school. The following year, STEM curriculum will be in all fourth, fifth and sixth-grade classes and the third year, the curriculum will expand to all K-3 classes.

"It's a really aggressive plan," Eden Prairie Superintendent Melissa Krull said, adding that the district is embedding the curriculum instead of creating a speciality school because "we wanted to make sure we created a model that would be available for all kids."

In Richfield, STEM training is also being expanded to staff beyond the speciality school.

"We didn't want to just hang a sign out that we were a STEM school," Richfield Superintendent Bob Slotterback said. "We felt we had to make a real change."

The spread of STEM hasn't come without criticism. In a report released this month, the Center for American Progress cautioned that STEM programs aren't all producing higher test scores. The report called for better standards for teacher training, more math and science classes in education colleges and more math and science on licensure exams, among other recommendations.

Still, STEM has come a long way in a short time.

Ten years ago, engineer Yvonne Ng said she and her peers laughed at the possibility of engineering being taught in elementary schools.

"Now here it is," said Ng, an assistant professor at St. Catherine University, which trained Richfield staff.

For kids, especially female and minority students, "if you don't prop that door open early on it gets closed," Ng said.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141