In Focus: State needs to invest in STEM education

March 7, 2014 

Washington ranks first in the nation in creating jobs that require science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. We are home to Hanford, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Microsoft and Boeing, plus countless smaller firms. But Washington isn’t producing enough graduates to fill those jobs, and employers consequently face tremendous challenges in finding qualified, homegrown, STEM-trained workers. The Tri-Cities has pioneered new STEM education models to try to address this. We have created a national model for innovative STEM learning: Delta High School, which serves students in the Kennewick, Pasco and Richland school districts. Delta’s concept of “small school, big footprint” is already working. And in the next two years, three new STEM elementary schools in Pasco will extend that footprint. When the Washington State STEM Education Foundation was formed in the Tri-Cities in 2008, its purpose was to create and then support design and operation of Delta as a public high school. Delta’s curriculum is rigorous and made relevant by intensive community involvement. The foundation supports the school’s academic aims, engages STEM professionals with students in “real-world” applications and works to spread this model. But we have yet to bridge the STEM skills gap. We must encourage more students to study and succeed in STEM subjects, do a better job of promoting the job opportunities and better equip teachers for STEM subjects. At Delta, the elements of STEM are woven into every subject. Humanities, music and art are recognized as critical in preparing students to compete in our global economy. But STEM signals a new approach to these subjects. For example, Delta students might read The Grapes of Wrath, consider the science behind the Oklahoma drought, then examine the resulting population migration, as well as the literary themes and historic and economic contexts. Music may include studying wave physics related to constructing and playing a stringed instrument. STEM is not an either/or proposition, but rather a lens through which students become inquisitive, rigorous learners, thinkers and problem-solvers. Washington STEM, a separate nonprofit, was created independent of our Tri-City group to advance excellence and innovation in STEM education statewide. It works with affiliated regional networks, including our Mid-Columbia network, to ensure students have access to high-quality STEM education. Its seven regional networks work to support STEM education in their areas, assisting local organizations and businesses in fostering and coordinating alliances to support STEM education. Our Legislature took several steps last year to invest in STEM, designating millions of dollars in the 2013-15 capital budget for facilities, including Delta High. House Bill 1872 called for establishing a comprehensive initiative to increase STEM learning and improve outcomes. Gov. Jay Inslee convened the STEM alliance, bringing private and public sectors together to map STEM education’s future. This year, Inslee and the state Senate have proposed allocating $1 million to help achieve two things: w Enable students statewide to participate in a real-world STEM learning experiences — internships, apprenticeships, job-shadowing — through regional networks of professionals and educators. w Create innovative teaching practices to help educators implement new standards in math and science that ensure high school students graduate ready for college and careers. The Tri-Cities has become known nationwide for its STEM innovation and seeks to become a world leader in clean, sustainable energy. Our science and research firms, our health care industry and our agriculture research and production all require graduates prepared for high-paying STEM careers. If all these elements work together, we can remain a national leader in STEM literacy and our schools, from kindergarten through university, can create a national model. We all benefit when our graduates can solve real-world problems, develop new technologies and make informed decisions. And the economic benefits of a labor force prepared to fill 100 percent of the STEM jobs are obvious. But that will take even greater participation from all in our community and state — business, institutions of higher education, K-12 educators, youth and community organizations, labor and service groups, elected leaders and the partnership of Washington STEM and its regional networks. Our lawmakers’ role is to continue their vital investment in STEM as our communities expand efforts to help all students graduate STEM-literate, no matter their anticipated career paths. For more information on how you or your organization can become involved in STEM education, contact the Washington State STEM Education Foundation at 509-420-9316. Tom Yount is president of the Washington State STEM Education Foundation and serves on the advisory board for the Mid-Columbia STEM Network.

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