Can STEM Education Save the Economy?

Can STEM Education Save the Economy?

Our Future Focus Foundation‘s Managing Director, Elizabeth Narehood, was recently featured in the News & Advance with the following article on the importance of STEM education and how it relates to the future of the American economy. Check it out:

Can STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education be a cornerstone of a thriving economy? Is the ability to produce a gifted workforce rooted in a strong foundation of critical thinking skills, problem solving and collaborative teams a key to future success not only in Region 2000, but in the nation as a whole? The more and more I think about it, the answer is … yes!

By 2018, STEM jobs are expected to grow 17 percent, whereas other job growth areas are projected to trail at half that amount. One million job openings in STEM fields will occur, yet only 16 percent of college graduates have studied in STEM-related fields, despite the fact that 80 percent of jobs will require a technical skill in the next decade. These jobs average a 26 percent higher salary than in non-STEM-related fields.

These numbers illustrate the brewing of a “perfect storm” in technology-based industries. An insufficient rate of STEM graduates, combined with an aging workforce quickly approaching retirement, has the alarm bells sounding. That alarm is ringing right here in Region 2000. I hear these concerns every day from companies large and small, and there is a common theme to all of them. Companies cannot find local, qualified, candidates and struggle to find diversity in candidates within STEM fields.

When I hear these comments, I see a tragedy. The Lynchburg unemployment rate current sits at 5.6 percent, although it is lower than the national average of 7.1 percent (source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Local Area Unemployment Stats). Unemployment affects every aspect of our economy, from business success and growth; to citizen spending power and taxation, which impacts government services and public education.

So where is the root of this workforce dilemma? How do we prepare for a future filled with solutions, promise and hope?

STEM Education is one of most misinterpreted educational and workforce acronyms used today. STEM became its very own newly formed acronym in the 1990s by the National Science Foundation. Most people think it simply means that we need to teach more math and science. That is not the case. True “STEM” means much more. STEM is an integrated approach to learning that occurs across curricular areas and seamlessly blends academic and technical skill sets.

STEM embraces the development of critical thinking skills, utilizing logical thought processes such as engineering design and scientific method across subject areas. But does STEM mean we should sacrifice other subject areas to concentrate more on science and math? Absolutely not. English skills are important for us to be the best communicators we can. History teaches us the tragedies and triumphs have made us the civilization we are today. The arts teach us visualization, the benefit of personal expression and creativity.

What STEM education does mean is allowing subjects to flow and complement each other; to build student capacity to see the big picture as well as the small; and to develop the independent thinking skills to build a path between the two.

So we know if implemented successfully, STEM education could be essential for the growth and development of our region’s sci-tech industries. How do we go about implementation?

True STEM education isn’t just a boxed-up curriculum that I can purchase and distribute to schools. It occurs at the intersection of family, industry, government and education. Collaboration, communication and engagement between these entities are essential for us to build and nourish a successful STEM intersection.

Family:

 » Take responsibility for child’s education.

 » Support education reform/embrace change.

 » Get involved in activities that promote STEM competencies outside of school.

Industry:

 » Career exploration, inspiration, and provide “Real World” applications.

 » Funding support.

Government:

 » Incentivize efforts that support economic growth high-growth STEM fields.

 » Provide support funding, infrastructure, and develop supportive public policy.

Education:

 » Correlate curriculum to meet industry expectations and develop evolving curriculum that will grow with the economy.

 » Continue to breakdown subject silos.

 » Incorporate the building of essential soft skills and technical competencies.

Through a collaborative effort can we begin a culture shift because a culture shift is needed to tackle a societal issue of this magnitude. A culture shift where high school students can earn a varsity letter in robotics. A culture where parents work closely with teachers to support their own child’s learning after school dismisses. A culture where applied learning and educational philosophy complement one another. A culture where industry and education talk and government provides a framework for the conversation to take place.

Those of you in business, on the front lines, know an essential component of your bottom line is your workforce. An educated workforce will not only fill the day to day needs to keep your companies strong, but also foster the outliers and innovators to allow your companies to evolve in a fast-paced scientific, technological race that will determine whether or not your company will exist in the next 10 years.

STEM education is one of the critical issues of our time. It involves and affects each and every one of us and clearly requires the support of all sectors. I encourage you to figure out where you fit in the puzzle so you can do your part. Possibly it is role modeling and encouraging youth to pursue a career in the field in which you work. Maybe it is working on new curriculum, educational policy, or securing funding to help support new initiatives. Get involved through your own company, school, or get active in non-profits like the Future Focus Foundation and Virginia’s Region 2000 Technology Council.

Narehood is managing director of the Future Focus Foundation, part of Virginia’s Region 2000 Technology Council. For more information on its programs, go to www.futurefocusfoundation.us or www.techcouncil.us. These two organizations were also pivotal in the launch of the Region 2000 STEM Academy, XLR8, opening this fall with ribbon-cutting Aug. 12, www.xlr8academy.com.

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