From Classroom to Career: The Power of Public-Private Partnerships in Education

Start listening

Sponsored by:

Jump to Transcript

Partnerships between schools and industry are the best way to prepare students for the careers of tomorrow, and thanks to partners like Fluor, Greenville County Schools is offering cutting edge opportunities to students from preschool through graduation. Today, we talk with Katie Porter, Greenville County Schools CTE Innovation Center Director, Thomas Riddle, Assistant Director of the Roper Mountain Science Center, and Torrence Robinson, Senior Corporate Philanthropy and Foundation Executive at Fluor, and explore how these partnerships create hands-on learning opportunities for students at facilities like the Roper Mountain Science Center and the CTE Innovation Center. We examine how these programs develop critical problem-solving skills and help students see their own potential in STEM fields. We also highlight the vital role businesses play in shaping curriculum and offering real-world experiences that ignite curiosity and inspiration.


CTE Innovation Center

Roper Mountain Science Center


This episode of Simple Civics: Greenville County is brought to you by Fluor. Fluor Has a Tradition of Community Service. While Fluor’s core business centers on designing, constructing and maintaining complex and challenging capital projects, Fluor and its employees also help to build a better world by giving back to the communities where they live and work around the globe.

To learn more about Fluor’s commitment to communities like ours, visit

Katy Smith:

South Carolina’s Upstate is rich in job opportunities in advanced manufacturing, health care, coding and software development, and so much more. These jobs tend to pay well and they are an important part of our economy. But they depend on a workforce that is ready to take them on.

That’s where STEM education comes in – which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Greenville County Schools has exceptional educational pathways in STEM that lead to careers and postsecondary credentials. And they are made possible by partnerships with our private sector.

I’m Katy Smith with Greater Good Greenville, and on this episode of Simple Civics: Greenville County, we’re joined by guests who are drivers of STEM education and workforce development in our community. Katie Porter is the director of CTE Innovation Center which connects Greenville County Schools students with Career and TEchnical Education. Thomas Riddle is the Assistant Director at Roper Mountain Science Center, an absolute treasurer for kids and grownups in the upstate. Torrence Robinson is president of the Fluor Foundation, a steadfast partner to STEM programs in Greenville County and in Fluor’s communities throughout the world. They are interviewed by Derek Lewis, Executive Director of Greenville First Steps.

Derek Lewis:

Well, thank you guys all for joining us today. We’re really excited about this conversation.

You know, when I think about my experience in high school, I think that my teacher’s goal was to just get me to walk across that stage without being suspended or having to come back again.

But it seems like now in a district anywhere in the state, but in particular, in this district, there’s a lot more riding on what we hope that student leaves school with.

So maybe could we just start by talking a little bit about kind of the G+ idea and kind of what what the goal is for students now compared to maybe more than 20 years ago?

Katie Porter:

Absolutely. So the goal of G+, and that stands for graduation plus, is just that, that our students leave with more than just a high school diploma.

So that can come in many different forms.

As a career center director, I push that to teachers and students and parents by saying, we want your child’s resume to be as broad and diverse as we can.

We want them to leave with more than I just attended high school.

So that comes in forms of dual credit from partnerships with our community colleges that could come in the form of certification.

So as students are in these career tech pathways, they’re able to obtain a wide variety of industry credentials that will either allow students to go straight to work or to just give them that one boost, that competitive advantage that they’re looking for.

And one that’s not always tied with Graduation Plus, but it’s also work-based learning experience.

So just allowing students to get out and intern and connect with industry.

We know in the upstate that we are thriving and there is so much industry and opportunities for students here.

So we want to expose them to all of that and make sure that they know when they leave, they are the best prepared to be successful.

Derek Lewis:

When we look at STEM, which I know is a huge part of kind of exposing students to these different careers, a lot of that’s hands-on learning.

And, you know, we have a gym at the Roper Mountain Science Center that is different than really any other district, I think, in the Southeast can offer to students.

Can we talk a little bit about some of the STEM services and opportunities that are available for students?

Thomas Riddle:

Yeah, so we’re really, beyond even the Southeast, we’ve looked all over.

And if people don’t, if listeners aren’t aware, we like to think of ourselves as the most unique educational space in the United States.

There’s really nothing else like a 62-acre facility owned by a school district that provides everything that we have.

And it is a true gem. The thing that we really want to do is we want to instill in kids or uncover in kids that natural curiosity that they have, which I think is so important, so vital to encourage them to pursue things that they want to do themselves.

And all of our experiences at Roper Mountain through our field trips, through our public events are all hands-on.

We want you to get up close and personal with the experience.

And so when kids come on a field trip to Roper Mountain, most of our lessons are, as you said, are STEM-based.

We do have social studies lessons as well because we have a living history farm.

But the thing that we think is so important, is vitally important, is to pique those kids’ curiosity in that day-long experience that we have with them, to get them wondering and asking questions.

Why do stingrays behave this way? Why is it important to take care of our oceans? How does that machine work the way it does?

How can we program computers or robots to run more efficiently?

We want them to come learn in the time that they have with us in a very exciting way, but leave them with questions as they go and like, wow, what else is there to this?

And then the thing that we always do, we end all of our lessons with this.

If you really enjoyed the activity that you had today, perhaps you could go into this career yourself and you could be X, Y, or Z, whatever is related to that lesson.

And we really want to get them excited about thinking, especially for kids who perhaps have never thought that way, that I could have a career in one of these STEM fields that I never thought before they came for their experience at Roper Mountain.

Derek Lewis:

[4:41] It really is incredible. You know, we have a seventh grader who still talks about the trips he took, you know, five years ago to the Science Center and the experiences that he was exposed to.

There are also, though, high school opportunities with the new center that’s built.

So, Ms. Porter, tell us a little bit about, like, some of the classes and programs that are there that are maybe different than what people would think are available at a typical career center.

Katie Porter:

Absolutely. So to hear you talk about the uniqueness of Roper Mountain Science Center, it is the same for the CTE Innovation Center.

So the concept that we are piloting and introducing new programs not available in the district, that in itself is innovative.

And so the programs that we have are in direct response to the growth in the upstate and where the job demand currently is and where it’s going.

And what our industry partners are saying is we’ve got to have this workforce.

So every time a new company looks to come in, they’re asking, well, what does the K-12 pipeline look like? Where are our workers going to come from?

So the five areas that we offer are aerospace technologies, automation and robotics, clean energy technologies, networking and cybersecurity, and emerging automotive research.

And that one is more unique than the others in that we beat the state in getting that curriculum written. And so we knew that in the upstate, the automotive industry is just alive and well.

We know all of the new battery plants that are coming and that shift to the EV market.

And so to be able to take the four current automotive technology programs and let us run with it and explore and figure out all the kinks and where are the areas, you know, our industry partners right now are saying, well, we don’t really need need full-time EV technicians yet, but we do need problem solvers and we need them to understand electrical theory.

And if this is broken, well, let’s backtrack through the process.

And I love what Thomas was saying at the middle school and elementary age to pique that curiosity.

If we can continue to get kids to just take whatever we give them and say, but what if, or why, and that is what we have tasked the staff with and the teachers.

And it’s amazing when we, you know, to watch kids do these projects, and we see this subgroup emerge, and they say, but we want to take it one step further.

That kind of energy and excitement, that is how we change the future of our workforce and our next generation of thinkers.

Derek Lewis:

Now, we’re also joined by Mr. Robinson from Fluor.

Can you just tell us a little bit about, like, from Fluor’s perspective, that partnership between the school district and industry, you know, how does that work from businesses’ perspective?

Torrence Robinson:

Thank you for inviting me. I am excited to be part of this conversation today.

Industry’s role, Fluor’s role in partnering with school districts, it really, I’m going to piggyback on what Katie mentioned, right?

It’s about identifying what what those opportunities are for jobs in the future.

And I love the way she articulated the fact that the CTE Center is focused on those technologies, those career paths that local industry will need.

From Fluor’s perspective, we’re a professional technical services company based here in Greenville for such a long period of time, decades upon decades.

But today, we’re looking for those who are familiar with renewable and clean energy.

We’re looking for those problem solvers that she mentioned.

Not just Fluor, but others, that cybersecurity is important moving forward, right?

So when we think about what we do as a company, right, we support our clients that build advanced manufacturing facilities, life science facilities.

We’re down in Aiken supporting Savannah River Site, so nuclear remediation and those types of things.

We need individuals who are problem solvers.

People who have that STEM literacy proficiency.

So whether you’re applying it in a engineering role or you are applying it in the field as part of construction manager, in the welding, pipe fitting.

We need those individuals who can solve problems, who can take the data that is in front of them right then and there and apply it.

And that’s what the STEM disciplines help create and provide those problem solving skills that you need to use in not just our industry, but many others.

Because STEM is more than just science, technology, engineering, and math.

It’s foundational. It’s not just a specific job.

It is foundational to be productive in this competitive world that we live in.

And companies like Fluor, we partner with school districts on a variety of programs.

I say school districts, that’s not just Greenville County Schools, but Roper Mountain Science Center, which I know is a part of Greenville County schools but, all sorts of programs that help increase awareness among students, increase proficiency among students in these all-important STEM disciplines.

Derek Lewis:

That’s really excellent. And, you know, all three of you talked about problem solvers.

And so when we think about the Roper Mount Science Center and the STEM services that are offered there, like how can families and students get involved in those type of programs? It’s not just a field trip with your fourth grade class.

There’s multiple ways you can access those services.

Thomas Riddle:

Absolutely. And before I answer that question, I have to give a shout out to Fluor since they are on the call with us.

And as Torrance said earlier, they do a lot of philanthropic work with educational entities like ourselves.

And if you are a listener who is part of a nonprofit or a school board or a board at all that’s not involved in education or you’re not collaborating together, I would say that you really need to reach out to community partners to do so.

You know, one of the things that’s made Greenville such a success over the years has been much touted is the public-private partnership that we’ve been able to have over the years to help this city grow.

And the same thing goes with us at Roper Mountain.

We can’t do what we do… we can’t provide the opportunities we provide without partners like Fluor and their generosity.

So to answer your question, there’s lots of ways you can get plugged into Roper.

Of course, we do about 55,000 students a year on field trips during the school day.

But in the afternoons on Thursday and Fridays, we’re open to the public from 1:30 to 5 o’clock.

So you can come explore our environmental science building, which is two years old, which is fantastic.

Harrison Hall of Natural Science, where we have the indoor rainforest, you can explore the touch tanks where you can pet sharks and stingrays and pick up horseshoe crabs, and then you can explore the Living History Farm as well, and also encounter 22 life-sized dinosaurs in the Southeast’s largest outdoor dinosaur trail, which is extremely popular.

So we are open also during the summer.

That’s the largest, I guess the longest, rather, we are open, the most we’re open at any one time to the public, is Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10 o’clock till 4 o’clock.

And last summer, for instance, we did close to 40,000 people in about five weeks that came through.

And that’s growing each year.

It’s an opportunity for families to come learn together or individuals.

One thing I will say this, I’m excited about this because it used to be that you only came to Roper Mountain if you had kids, right?

They used to come for the Christmas lights. They would say that.

Or they’d come with field trips as chaperones or that, you know, once they didn’t have kids anymore, they’d stop coming. But now what we’re seeing, Derek, is the community is really starting to discover what we have here.

And we have retired couples coming without grandkids.

We’re seeing kids coming on dates that are teenagers and young adults without kids, again, and just coming to explore because there are so many opportunities to learn everything from how to make a more sustainable future to what in the world an axolotl is, and why they are bioindicators to water quality.

And so, yeah, we are blessed, like you said earlier, to have such a gem of a resource here for individuals, for kids, but also the community to get involved in STEM-related activities and learning.

Derek Lewis:

It’s a really exciting space. And to me, it’s really encouraging that there was an era where people only knew of it for for the Living History Farm, and because of the lights that used to be there.

And it’s just really cool to see all these other ways that people can engage with science in a meaningful and hands-on way.

So, Ms. Porter, when we talk about business engagement, I mean, you guys are delivering content that you mentioned was specifically the kind of things industry asked for.

Like when you’re, when you’re seeking partnerships, what are, what are ways that, that people listening now who are, are a part of a business can, can get involved in some sort of meaningful way with you or with the other career centers?

Katie Porter:

There are numerous ways to partner and to hear Thomas talk about their strong connections.

We have some of those same partnerships. And a lot of times companies look and think, oh, well, we could just donate financially.

And that’s wonderful. We do… We need the newest technology.

But it is as simple as coming to be a guest speaker, coming to serve on a panel for our students.

So one of the unique embedded opportunities we created at the Innovation Center was that because we are project-based, we added in the honors curriculum that students have to present to industry panels.

And so we know communication and presentation skills are important.

And that’s, again, that added value for Graduation Plus.

And so it has been just incredible, just not only as an educator, but to see students that we got in August who had would probably would rather just curl up and die than have to present to someone and watch them kind of get through that first initial presentation to now, where just this morning, we’ve had a group on campus and we were walking through and every single student was so excited to share what they were doing.

And they were able to explain it in detail and explain it with excitement.

And then ask, you know, well, do you want to try and then they were willing to teach the adults that come in. So it’s one thing when a teacher stands up or they can show videos or they’re doing hands-on learning, but when someone from industry comes in and can say, here’s how we’re utilizing this, here’s what it looks like, or when they open our doors to our students and say, hey, why don’t you come in and tour and let us let you look.

So if it’s a manufacturing facility.

Students need to see how all the players work together, that you may love manufacturing, but you may have great people skills and you may want to go the route of HR.

So students don’t associate that sometimes. And so if we can help expose them, that is just, again, one more value add. And I don’t think I’ve had any adult that has come in the building, and Derek, I know you’ve been in our building this year, who has left just not energized.

And I think a little bit excited about what we’re doing for this next generation who so many people say, well, they’re just glued to their phones.

Well, they’re not because they’re in their backpacks for two and a half hours while they’re on our campus. They’re not using them.

And if they are, they’re filming and using the next cool editing software to demonstrate their projects. So, again, just lots of ways to partner.

We have students right now working with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Department.

They came out and did a lesson on drones and how they use drones in public safety, and that immediately tailspined into a real-world project where students are getting work-based learning credit.

The sheriff’s department had a need and said, look, we’ve got this piece on a drone and we’re not able to mass produce it. It needs to be tweaked a little bit.

And so our students currently are prototyping and 3D printing and designing, and they are so excited.

I mean, when we walk in, they don’t want to stop because they’re like, we got to figure this out.

And there goes that thinking of, oh, what if we put lights on it?

And then all of a sudden we do this. And so they are so excited to have the sheriff’s department come back so that then they can present to them and say, here’s how we have solved an issue that exists right here in Greenville.

And so if we can continue those types of partnerships, we’re always looking for that. We partnered with the downtown airport.

Our students did a pilot seat design.

We’ve partnered with VEX Robotics and Koops Incorporated, Koops Automation, to design a new piece for a VEX Robotics, and then students got to take the design challenge and they had a project manager from Koops who… and that has turned into Koops now saying we want we want internships.

We want to take some of your students. So it’s just a pipeline.

It’s educating. It’s getting them to campus.

So anyone in the sector who’s listening, we would love for you to reach out.

We will welcome you and tour you around the building. And when you see what’s going on, we hope that you will be energized and want to participate.

Derek Lewis:

So, Mr. Robinson, you talked a little bit about Fluor being a long-term partner with the school district, and certainly you can see the fingerprints of Fluor all over the district, which is just a really exciting thing to see a corporate partner stand alongside public education.

Can you just talk a little bit about maybe some of the ways that Fluor as a corporation or Fluor’s employees partner with schools?

Torrence Robinson:

Sure. But if I may, before I jump into that, let me applaud, endorse, and validate everything that Katie mentioned, what’s happening at the CTE Center.

Love the fact that they’re offering project-based learning.

That hands-on approach is critical.

We learn differently. Some of us need to have that hands-on.

It’s tactile. You need to see it, feel it, touch it, move it.

That helps with the learning and the engagement.

I know that’s happening at Roper Mountain Science Center as well.

The fact that you want, need guest speakers, and I will endorse that fact.

Every time I’ve stepped foot into a classroom, had conversations with administrators… young people need to hear our voices in the business community.

They don’t know what they don’t know.

They may not have met an engineer before. They may not have met a doctor or a lawyer.

They may have not met an entrepreneur or communications professional.

They may not have met these folks. Or you cannot become what you don’t see.

So if you are an industry who wants to attract more young people to your field, you have to be seen.

You need to take that time to make that investment. So I just wanted to take a moment to endorse what Ms. Porter was saying. With regards to Fluor and our investments, you know, so thank you, Riddle, has been a great partnership with Roper Mountain Science Center over the years.

It is a great asset for the for the upstate and the entire state, because I know you attract schools from across the state there.

And so we’ve invested there.

I heard Katie mentioned VEX Robotics. Well, we’ve supported FIRST Robotics.

You know, robotics competitions are important.

Not all of our kids will be on the gridiron or the basketball court or the soccer field.

We need other competitive venues so they can work in teams.

I know that is another term that we use during this session.

And being able to work in teams, to partner, to work with each other, to communicate with your partner so that there’s understanding. Guess what?

That’s not just important to earn a grade in school.

That’s what we do at Fluor every single day in the projects that we help bring to life for our clients.

So the skills, the experiences our young people are learning, whether at Roper Mountain, whether it’s at the CTE Center in Greenville, those are skills that are transferable to all aspects of life and work.

We supported, you know, awareness of STEM.

You know, it’s a constant conversation, a constant battle to talk about these disciplines, these fields, the opportunities.

And so that’s why we support Imagine Upstate STEM Festival, right, for families, communities.

Come on out. Learn about the STEM opportunities that are available. So we’ve done that.

Next week is National Engineers Week.

So we’ll have engineers, even non-engineers, go out to schools and talk about the opportunities that are available if you choose to pursue a STEM-related field, right?

It’s important, as I mentioned before, STEM disciplines, it’s not just about the destination of a particular job.

These are skills, attributes, a way of problem solving that are foundational in this highly technical global world that we live in.

So those are just a few of the things, right?

Roper Mountain, robotics competitions, Imagine Upstate, getting our employee volunteers out there in the community, talking to young people.

So whether it’s with the school district or youth serving organizations that are offering these STEM opportunities and projects. Those are the things that we gravitate towards and we are proud to to have invested over the past 15 years.

And the vast majority of that, I know I said education, but the vast majority of that investment has been in STEM, STEM related activities from K through university. Right.

And we’re extremely proud of our footprint, our heritage as relates to these types of investments. For your listeners who are data intensive.

They need the data. I have a couple of statistics that that I wanted to share as relates to STEM and job growth, job projections.

In the state of South Carolina, there are thousands of career opportunities in the STEM field that the state is projecting over a 10-year period, 2020 to 2030.

15% of that projected growth is in the area of professional, scientific, and technical services.

And that’s just a portion, small portion of the STEM-related fields, 15%, thousands of job opportunities over the next decade. So there’s opportunity.

The other one, you know, comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, took a look at the annual median wage of STEM occupations.

Derek, STEM occupations are are more than two times the medium annual wage than non-STEM occupations.

So if you have a child, a teenager going to school, I guess even a third grader, you want to prepare them for the future in the state, right?

So there are jobs, it pays well, and we already alluded to the types of industries that’s being supported.

Over the past 10 years, we’ve helped facilitate, whether it’s through volunteering, whether it’s through financial contributions, more than 1.1 million hours of STEM instruction.

So we’re serious about our investment. We try to put our money where our mouth is in this regard.

And over that same period of time, again, through partnerships, school district, et cetera, over 300,000 K-12 students impacted through our partnerships with community, with those in the community like those on the podcast today.

I just want to share that context because I think it’s important for a good segment of your listeners.

Thomas Riddle:

Next year will be our 40th anniversary at Roper Mountain Science Center.

And so what we have begun finding are the stories of the people who came to Roper Mountain as kids who are now professionals.

And more and more, we’re hearing stories of people that say, I went into engineering because of experiences I had at Roper Mountain.

I’m a doctor now because of things that I learned, I got inspired by at Roper Mountain.

And so for people to invest, the community to invest in that type of learning that can touch so many lives, that can have such, I mean, you’re talking about generational impact, not just for individuals, but also for a community.

I encourage the community to get involved as much as possible because lives are being changed through these opportunities to explore.

I love what Torrance said too, that, you know, that quote is fantastic, that you have to see that opportunity before you. You have to see someone before you.

And so kids are being able to do that at Roper Mountain.

Kids are being able to do that at the CTE Center. I mean, it’s incredible the lives that are being changed through these opportunities.

And so, yeah, I think Greenville has really something special here because of the conversations like we’re having today.

Katie Porter:

Absolutely. Can I add to that? So just talking about the lives that are changed.

So because we are new, everybody loves shiny things, but CareerTech has been around for years and it has really gained momentum over the years.

Students that take CareerTech classes have a 98% graduation rate.

The level of engagement, and it’s not just our center.

So we bear the name CTE, but there are four other career and technology centers.

They have different names, but they are all doing the exact same things.

They are impacting kids.

They are problem-solving. If you’ve never been in a firefighting program or a cosmetology program, if you don’t think science is embedded and problem-solving and teamwork, so they are doing everything.

And even in our comprehensive high schools, they all have career tech pathways, health science, marketing, agriculture.

So it’s, it’s that mind shift. And I’ve had a parent say to me before, well, I just want my child to just focus on being a child, they don’t need to figure out their career.

And I said, I hear you. And that’s not what we’re trying to do.

We’re trying to prepare them with the best professional skills that we can offer them.

So if they’re sitting in an English class, that’s phenomenal.

But let them take a class where they do have to to work as a team and they have real world projects. So then they can be the best prepared students.

So we are all over Greenville County. So yes, I represent one center, but we are doing it all over the district. So it’s a phenomenal thing.

Derek Lewis:

So I just, I’m really struck by that, that phrase that you cannot become what you don’t see.

And I think that is a really powerful reminder that we are providing opportunities for students every day at the the Roper Science Center and through our career centers, but also through the corporate partners who are coming into our schools and helping to reflect everyday real-world experiences for our students so that they can, you know, know that those options are available to them in careers that maybe they don’t even know exist today.

And I’m just so thankful for Fluor and for the school district and for all of our community partners that are really helping to make that happen.

Thank you to all three of you for being with us today.

Image via Canva.

Join the discussion