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St. Mary’s public school classrooms will be outfitted with 3,500 touch-screen tablets thanks to a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.

The grant, which was announced Wednesday afternoon by Superintendent Michael Martirano along with local and state elected leaders and Patuxent River Naval Air Station officials, was awarded to St. Mary’s public schools to expand science, technology, engineering and mathematics teaching initiatives.

The award is “the largest grant in the history of the school system,” Martirano said.

The majority of the grant $1.9 million will be used to buy the 3,500 touch-screen tablets, such as iPads, to be placed in 410 classrooms. School officials said all regular elementary classrooms as well as all middle and high school science classrooms will receive the tablets.

The remainder of the grant money will be used for professional development for teachers, other administrative costs and to fund two new jobs a STEM project coordinator and an e-coach.

Martirano said the grant will grow the “STEM for All” initiative that aims to teach critical skills to all students, not just those in the specialized STEM academies located at Lexington Park Elementary, Spring Ridge Middle and Great Mills High schools that require students to apply.

The grant encourages Project Based Learning, which provides students with projects based on real-world challenges.

“We have to teach young people to solve problems that haven’t even been identified yet,” Martirano said.

Bernadette Sheetz, a middle school math teacher and county teacher of the year, last year received her own grant that allowed her to buy interactive tablets and other technology for her classroom.

“We use that to engage the learners,” she said, adding that her students use the tablets to solve work on classroom problems without falling out of step with the lessons.

She said she expects science teachers will be excited to have the tablets at their disposal to help student learning.

The county school system was identified by the Military Child Education Coalition as one of the school districts in the nation with the largest number of military-connected student populations 6,448 students or 35 percent of the total enrollment last school year.

Forty-four Department of Defense grants were given; St. Mary’s was one of three to receive the largest amount available of $2.5 million.

Capt. Ted Mills, commanding officer at Pax River, said he often has to “sell” new sailors on how good schools are at a particular base. Here in St. Mary’s, he said, “I get to tell them they get to be part of something special.”

He praised the partnerships with local schools and the Navy base and said that it is important to educate young people for careers related to science, technology, engineering and math.

“Money is precious in the Department of Defense ... if you can invest $2.5 million, that means it is part of something special,” Mills said.

Half of the grant money is awarded in the first year with the remainder scheduled to arrive in the second and third years, school officials said. The first set of interactive tablets and the two new employees will likely be in place by January.

Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s) said that despite an unemployment rate nationally of 7.8 percent, there are some 2 million jobs that cannot be filled because they require workers with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and math.

“They’re doing it out of self-interest, for the Department of the Defense and for our country” to help grow the number of qualified workers for national defense jobs, Bohanan said of the grant.

“We can have one of the best STEM programs not just in this state, but in the country,” Bohanan said, praising the partnerships in St. Mary’s County among different levels of government, Pax River and the private sector.

St. Mary’s County Commission President Jack Russell (D) said that this will aid the local schools in their ability to build the workforce needed for jobs on base.

“This is what we’re working for ... build relationships, get stuff done,” Russell said.

jyeatman@somdnews.com