To keep Florida at the forefront of the U.S. technology market, tactical changes to the state’s educational offerings are needed. Early.
I recently read a letter to the editor from one of my counterparts here on the Space Coast that described (in his opinion) the educational landscape for properly training the high-tech workforce necessary for future economic development in Florida. The tech genius-turned-business-owner behind the letter challenged the state to increase the number of vocational schools and reassess the direction of community colleges since they have taken on four-year degrees.
A technology business owner myself, I also look ahead to the future workforce in meeting the needs of our company’s growth, and I concur that tactical changes to Florida’s educational offerings are required to keep the state at the forefront of the U.S. technology market. In my opinion, intervening at the college level is too late; quality education focused on STEM subjects must be introduced during K-12.
We will see how the federally guided Common Core Standards shake out after they are implemented in Florida, but I believe that collaboration with private industry is critical to support and guide K-12 education. This will generate the competence and quality necessary for the 21st century workplace.
We need to encourage curiosity and problem solving at the primary grades and nurture students’ natural aptitudes for STEM subjects. Once the students move into middle grades and beyond, educational pursuits can then become more specialized with an experiential component. One way of approaching this is through the Cooperative Education (Co-op) model in which students alternate periods of academic study with periods of paid or non-paid work experience. This can only be done with the support of private industry.
Here on the Space Coast, we’ve seen numerous school closures because voters opted out of a small tax increase that would have helped meet the needs of increased student populations and technology improvements. With federal, state and local budgets becoming tighter, it is imperative that private industry step up to the plate and help to “design” the workforce of the future from the start.
With three elementary schools ranked in the U.S. top 10, Brevard County Public Schools (ranked eighth in the state, https://app2.fldoe.org/Ranking/Schools/) has given focus to developing the CTE-CHOICE program to provide high school students the opportunity to participate in a specific career and technical education program not offered at their zoned high school. (The district provides transportation to students in order for them to attend.)
At Merritt Island High School, the DaVinci Academy of Aerospace Engineering is one of the CTE-CHOICE programs. The caliber of this program is exceptional because the curriculum is shaped by a business advisory board that includes representatives from industry giant Lockheed Martin, my own company, the U.S. Air Force and others.
The result? High school students have designed and produced a cube satellite that is now scheduled to go into orbit via an upcoming SpaceX launch, http://amsat-uk.org/2013/04/11/merritt-island-high-students-cubesat/. Imagine if every school had this type of buy-in from industry!
The Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast Industry Council has taken note and is now exploring a partnership with the Automation & Production (Manufacturing & Robotics) program at Heritage High School in Palm Bay, as part of the EDC’s move to concentrate on growing the manufacturing sector in Brevard.
Yet another progressive example is the Central Florida STEM Education Council (CFSEC) supported by the Women in Defense (WID) industry association. Described on its website, myawesomefloridacareer.com, the CFSEC is “a collaborative effort between academia, industry, professional organizations and government, with a long-term objective of increasing the technical workforce … . CFSEC strives to develop a unified STEM program to include mass communication, mentorships and resources for parents, students and educators.” If Florida is to get serious about high-tech worker training, it is the business leaders and not the government who need to spell out the path forward. Industry must contribute to the education dialogue by offering technical staff to schools and opening their workplaces to students. I feel that we are making significant progress in our efforts to improve education and our workforce, but the question to ask yourself is “Are YOU ready to buy-in?”