Legislative support will expand STEM degrees at UWT

Thank you for your April 21 editorial, “Capital budget must fund UWT Urban Solutions Center.”

At the University of Washington Tacoma we are planning for new STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees to meet critical workforce needs. But without the labs in the planned Urban Solutions Center, which requires funding in the state budget now being negotiated, we can’t offer new biomedical science and engineering programs.

A key mission of the UWT is to serve the local community, which needs more graduates in STEM fields. Washington ranks first in concentration of STEM jobs, with an expected increase of 24 percent by 2018, while in 2013 more than 23,000 STEM jobs went unfilled as a result of a lack of skilled workers, according to nonprofit group Washington STEM. This puts us 49th out of 50 in the mismatch between jobs and available skilled employees.

The top five employers in Pierce County include the military, local public schools and health care providers (according to The News Tribune), all of which are major employers of STEM graduates. Meanwhile, 80 percent of the unfilled jobs statewide are in health care, computer science and engineering.

The UWT is doing a good job of producing quality STEM graduates in a limited number of programs. We offer three technology bachelor’s degrees: computer science and systems, computer engineering and information technology. The only natural science bachelor’s degree we offer is environmental science, an important field for the community but not enough to serve the science needs of the region.

In addition, we have graduate degrees in STEM-related fields including geographic information systems, cybersecurity and leadership, computer science and systems, nursing, and a teaching certificate in secondary math or science teaching.

We are proud of what we have accomplished, but we have tremendous capacity to do more. We must expand our STEM offerings to serve the future needs of the region, and we are prepared to do so. We will offer a math major this fall, and we plan to begin a biomedical sciences degree that meets a long-standing need in our region, but we require more labs to support the program.

We offer preparatory classes for students interested in medical, dental, pharmacy and veterinary schools, and an innovative degree in health care leadership that prepares students for management jobs in health care. However, there are no undergraduate science degrees to match the interests and goals of these students until we have the new biomedical sciences major.

We have dozens of students interested in health science fields despite the lack of a specific major, and we estimate well over 200 new students would enroll in the biomedical sciences major once it’s available. Additionally, we are planning a master’s in environmental science.

The Institute of Technology has grown by more than 20 percent during each of the past four years, doubling its enrollments (700 students) and faculty (33 full-time), and demand has not abated. We are developing three new undergraduate engineering degrees, in electrical engineering, industrial and manufacturing engineering, and cyber engineering, which is a natural outcropping from our computer science and computer engineering programs.

These new engineering programs will require additional lab space. Our master’s degree in computer science and systems has grown to 120 students, a four-fold increase over the past three years, much of that due to its focus on solving real-world problems with its partners in local business and industry through our Center for Data Science. A complementary master’s of computer and electrical engineering is also in the works.

We have fantastic facilities at the UWT and have been creative in squeezing space from existing buildings, but to serve the number of students we expect to attract with these new initiatives, more teaching and research lab space is necessary. We join you in urging the Legislature to support construction of the UWT’s lab building as a shared investment in our future.

Bonnie J. Becker is associate dean of curriculum and academic initiatives at the University of Washington Tacoma. Rob Friedman is director of UWT’s Institute of Technology.