Our Voice: Pasco off to good start on three STEM elementary schools

Parents ought to be encouraged by the Pasco School Board's bold plan to build not only new school buildings but also new ways of teaching their children.

The focus on science, technology, engineering and math -- the so-called STEM subjects -- is the right one for our kids and our state.

Questions raised by School Board Member Bill Leggett and others are valid, particularly their concerns about where the arts will fit into a STEM school.

But that concern can be addressed. Deidre Holmberg, who starts her new job on July 1 as planning principal for Pasco's three new elementary schools, already has experience integrating arts and science in her job as principal at Delta High School.

Holmberg told school board members the arts still will play an important role in education in STEM, although it would be taught differently than how it is now. For example, kids might learn about how instruments or paints are engineered.

"Artists are some of the best chemists, some of the best engineers," she said.

Leggett also wondered whether STEM education is just the latest flavor of the month. "Since 1960, we've had 20 different things that have been the research of the decade," he said during a recent school board meeting. "I'm just concerned about attaching a name to it rather than just doing it."

But the focus on STEM education isn't just the latest theory promoted by the next wave of experts. It's an attempt to address real needs.

The Washington Roundtable, a business group comprising CEOs and other top leaders from Microsoft, Weyerhaeuser, Boeing and a score of the state's other major employers, commissioned a study on the state's job opportunities.

The Boston Consulting Group took a detailed look at the needs of Washington's employers and the ability of the state's workforce to meet the growing demand for skilled workers.

The gap between worker skill and employer needs is astounding. Today, Washington companies have 25,000 job openings that are unfilled because they can't find the skilled workers need to fill them, according to the study. That number is expected to grow to 50,000 jobs by 2017.

Two to four additional jobs are created for each STEM job that's filled in Washington, so the total effect of those 50,000 jobs is estimated be 160,000 jobs.

If we can seize that opportunity, the state's unemployment rate would drop to under 2 percent.

There is much to like about Pasco's approach. The focus on elementary school is the right one.

The new STEM schools will play to the inherent curiosity of elementary students, Holmberg said. "They just have a natural ability to do this."

Anyone who has ever fielded a preschooler's stream of questions about the world around them is familiar with the natural curiosity of the very young.

Susan Enfield, superintendent of the Highline School District near Seattle, put it clearly in an interview with the Puget Sound Business Journal.

"Kindergarten is where scientists and engineers are born," she said.

We also like the fact that this new style of school is starting at new buildings. It's bound to be easier to create a new culture than to change an existing one.

We're encouraged to see Holmberg starting a conversation with the community even before she officially starts her job. If the new schools succeed, it will be in partnership with parents and the broader community -- and dialogue is the first step in building partnerships.

It's tough to start anything new. Growing pains are inevitable. But Pasco is off to a good start and that's bound to help.