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IT Adds Up

STEM Education is Key for Utah’s Future

By Peri Kinder

The State of Utah is willing to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to funding Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs.

stem Alex Nabaum

The State of Utah is willing to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to funding Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs. In fact, it’s willing to put up $10 million in “startup” money, with opportunity for continued funding each year, to ensure ongoing collaboration between education, industry and government groups to create an educated workforce, well-versed in STEM disciplines. All of this effort is being done so a continuous flow of well qualified people will be prepared to meet the needs of businesses in the future. With over 665,000 students currently in Utah’s public education system there is an ever increasing need for great jobs in Utah for our growing workforce and well qualified people to fill the jobs.
As more technology companies like Adobe, Microsoft and IBM move to the state, and with companies like ATK, Evans Sutherland and Nelson Laboratories already based here, Governor Gary R. Herbert has made it a top priority to provide a highly trained workforce to fill STEM jobs that increase the standard of living for all residents.
In order to coordinate STEM education and activities, the Utah STEM Action Center was created through legislation in 2013 to facilitate the effectiveness of all invested partners. Serving on the STEM Action Center Advisory Board are representatives that embody the exact type of connections the program is meant to create.

These board members include Chairperson Jeffery Nelson, president and CEO of Nelson Laboratories; Vice-Chair Spencer P. Eccles, executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development; Stan Lockhart, government affairs manager, IM Flash Technologies; Robert O. Brems, president of the Utah College of Applied Technology; and Martell Menlove, superintendent of the State Board of Education. Other board members include leaders from ATK, Adobe, Goldman Sachs and the Board of Education.
“STEM is really a core component of our education system that firmly sits at the crossroads of workforce development and economic development,” says Tami Goetz, executive director of the STEM Action Center. “People are really starting to see that STEM education feeds the economy, and helps to provide the workforce to feed the economy.”

The Cool Factor

Teaching the majority of kids that mathematics and science are cool subjects will be a big emphasis as the STEM Action Center rolls out programs and activities geared toward students in grades 6-8. This seems to be the pivotal time in the education process where students either become STEM friendly or phobic.
Reaching students at an earlier age by incorporating interactive experiences allows educators to build a solid foundation in STEM concepts, while demonstrating that mathematics and science can be fun. Competitions like the Utah FIRST LEGO League, where teams design, build and program a robot made of Legos, are gaining popularity. Nearly 300 teams from across the state competed in this year’s event.
“We are trying to increase participation and eliminate barriers,” says Sue Redington, STEM Action Center coordinator. “If a barrier to a student is the registration fee or paying for their robots, we help in that regard. We created a grant program where students can apply, and it’s been really rewarding. We helped more than 800 students this year. Our next concern is that growth will happen too fast.”
Several charter schools in the state are focused specifically on STEM elements. Students at the Academy of Math, Engineering and Science (AMES), the Neil Armstrong Academy, InTech and the Utah County Academy of Sciences (UCAS) receive an education focused on mastering the mathematics, science, technology and engineering concepts necessary to ensure their success once they move into the workforce.

“This is a way of looking at the world that will have a large impact on economic development in Utah,” says STEM specialist Mitchell Jorgensen. “STEM thinking is in a lot of places. It’s the ability to look at the world and analyze it with mathematics, engineer solutions to problems, and understand the natural world, and then develop technology solutions. That’s what this is all about.”

Business on Board

Almost every industry has a STEM component. With so much data, companies are looking for employees who understand data analysis, scientific processes and statistical programs. Often, these positions offer high salaries that support continued economic growth.
Businesses in Utah fully support STEM education, and in January the private sector pledged more than $2 million to develop a media campaign that will bring an increased focus to STEM programs. The marketing effort will include TV commercials, plus media placement through radio spots, billboards and online messaging, targeting parents as well as students.
“We are making steps in the right direction. I think our lack of focus on STEM stretches back generations. But now STEM is on the radar screen of enough people that changes will be made,” says Meredith Mannebach, program manager for the STEM Action Center. “Kids are studying concepts that didn’t exist when their parents were in school. So, how do we support parents so they have the resources they need to help their kids succeed? These decisions have long-term consequences.”
A media campaign, “STEM Utah: Curiosity Unleashed,” was launched at the Neil Armstrong Academy, with Gov. Herbert and more than two dozen business owners attending to show their support. Business representation included JP Morgan Chase, Merit Medical, Energy Solutions, eBay and Boeing.
Mark Bouchard is the former chair of Prosperity 2020, a partnership with private businesses and state education officials designed to encourage educational success in Utah schools. The organization set goals that include reaching a 66 percent post-secondary graduation rate in the state, 90 percent proficiency in mathematics and reading for elementary students, and helping Utah to become a STEM Top Ten Center for technology businesses.
“Companies like Adobe and Google, they want to come to Utah because we are very focused on educating our young people and have high standards for them,” Bouchard says. “The education of the young people of the state is the governor’s No. 1 budgetary issue. More than any other time in the history of the world, companies are very focused on workforce and where they can pull in an educated workforce on a regular basis.”
In addition to business partnerships, STEM coordinator Diana Suddreth commends the collaborative environment among the universities and colleges in the state. State leaders are hoping to utilize the higher-ed/business connection to create STEM-specific mentorships and apprentice programs.
“There’s no better place to learn how to be a problem solver, but also to become someone who sees problems,” Goetz says. “We have to train our kids to identify problems and give them skills to find the right tools to solve those problems.”

Attracting Women and Minorities

One area where STEM is lacking across the nation is the inclusion of women and minorities in STEM-related jobs. Nationally, STEM jobs are expected to grow 17 percent by 2018—totaling 2.4 million potential jobs. During that same time, more than 100,000 jobs in Utah will be STEM related.
In order to fill all those positions, underrepresented populations need to be encouraged to pursue STEM-related careers. A key STEM drop-out point for girls and minorities is between fifth and eighth grade, when micro-messaging and fixed mindsets reinforce the idea that these populations don’t have what it takes to succeed in the science or mathematics intensive industry.

Susan Thackeray, Utah Valley University director of career and technical education, has made it her mission to encourage young women to enter STEM fields. Women make up 50 percent of the workforce nationally, but less than 25 percent of STEM positions are filled by women.
“We need to introduce them to a safe opportunity to demonstrate they have what it takes,” she says. “If you can catch them between fifth and eighth grade and give them an opportunity to develop that self-efficacy, then you have eliminated that idea that they can’t do it.
“We need to change the delivery. We unintentionally give subtle messages to an entire group of students that they don’t have what it takes.”
The STEM Action Board is addressing these very issues, knowing there won’t be enough individuals to fill all the tech jobs in the next five years. Minority populations are growing in Utah, and they could increase their salaries by up to 30 percent through entering STEM fields. And tech employers are creative at incorporating flexible work schedules that include telecommuting to attract more women to their companies.
“If we really leveraged our minority and our female population, we could fill the STEM gap,” says Suddreth. “The public is talking about STEM in different ways. The idea that scientists are nerds, locked away in their labs or their offices is changing.”

Not Just for Kids

Much of the focus of STEM education is directly related to students in kindergarten through high school or college. But Goetz says the emphasis should not end after college graduation, but continue on for lifelong technical training.
Through strategic outreach, recruitment and retention, Goetz wants more supporting mechanisms put in place to offer professional assistance for people who have been in the workforce for a long time but can’t keep up with the pace of technology. She calls it the “K through Gray pipeline” that will create ongoing learning opportunities for employees to adapt their skills to an ever-changing technological world.
Goetz would also like to see a strategy in place to help military personnel use their technical expertise in high-paying tech jobs once they return home from deployment. STEM jobs can provide greater access to our returning veterans to high wage, high tech jobs that take advantage of their technical training that they received in the military.
“The STEM gap for workers continues to grow. If you believe current numbers, merely working with the traditional potential workforce coming through the pipeline will not be enough. We have to address our adult population as well,” Goetz says.

Branching Out

STEM proponents often hear the complaint that focusing on science and mathematics courses alienates students who want to study language arts, humanities or non-STEM careers.
But Jorgensen disagrees with that opinion, describing the educational system as a tree, with its roots planted deep in the earth, based on arts and humanities. He says STEM is the trunk of that tree allowing branches to bear fruit in the form of patents, copyrights and innovative ideas.
“We want to bring more success to the State of Utah,” he says. “We want to see more patents, more copyrights, more trademarked items, more business success, and we want to see more businesses coming here—and that’s what happens when you have powerful STEM learning.”
Those working with the STEM Action Center understand not every child will choose to follow a STEM career, but they say STEM-based initiatives are about creating an educated populace, keeping teachers enthusiastic and inspired, and leveraging resources more effectively. It’s about getting the needle moving in the right direction.
“It all translates into people being productive parts of society,” Jorgensen says. “They’re able to vote effectively, think clearly and are able to work in a job that provides well for their family and themselves.”
By creating opportunities for hands-on learning, and working with parents and teachers about how to make science education fun for boys and girls, and all nationalities, the tide will slowly turn, eliminating stereotypes and encouraging more children and young adults to enter STEM fields.
State leaders know this cultural shift will take some time, but in the meantime, the Utah STEM Action Center will be a place that connects the dots, a place where expertise can flow, a place to start the conversation and a place to create opportunities.
“Imagine what students could achieve if they caught the vision of their own capability to be successful with STEM topics,” says Jeffery R. Nelson, chairman of the STEM Action Center Advisory Board and CEO of Nelson Labs. “This would not only benefit their individual quality of life, it would make Utah the destination for great companies and great jobs into the future.”