STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) takes root in the Super Region.
It’s 1961. President John F. Kennedy challenges our nation to be first to put a man on the moon.
But winning the space race requires many more engineers and scientists. U.S. educators quickly mobilize to refocus 1960s school curriculums on math and science. NASA promises the adventure of a lifetime to anyone with the right stuff.
Reaching the moon takes eight years, about $120 billion (in today’s dollars) and nearly 400,000 workers. Many of them settle in Florida and leave a lasting economic impression along the beaches of the newly named Space Coast.
Fast forward to 2014. Despite a still-tight labor market, there’s opportunity aplenty for any and all educated in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).
A University of Cincinnati study finds two openings for every STEM worker not already employed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 9.2 million STEM jobs by the end of this decade. PayScale places STEM occupations at the very top of its salary list. Our economy promises a stable, good-paying career to anyone with today’s right stuff.
But despite these rosy prospects, student interest in STEM careers suffers from a 20-year decline. Without sufficient human resources to meet growth demands, emerging tech, science or engineering businesses could wither on the vine.
During the 1960s, we feared losing the moon race to the Soviet Union. Are we now in danger of losing future STEM-related business opportunities to companies in other corners of the world?
“It’s critical that our leaders continue to develop STEM educational strategies that raise the bar for our workforce,” says Carol Craig, founder and CEO of Craig Technologies, a technology and engineering firm in Cape Canaveral. “Otherwise, we won’t remain competitive in today’s global market and recapture our status as a technology and manufacturing powerhouse.”
Here’s why the bar needs raising: among the 34 member nations of the Paris-based Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. ranks only 21st in the science test scores of 15-year-olds. Change the Equation, a coalition aimed at improving STEM education, claims only 30 percent of high school seniors taking the ACT test are ready for college-level STEM coursework.
Like many states, Florida offers tax breaks and other incentives to entice industries — many with a large concentration of STEM workers — to locate here. A member of numerous boards, including Enterprise Florida and The Corridor, Craig watches these efforts from a front-row seat. “But to lay a stable economic foundation, we need to look beyond simply offering incentives and think more about what employers need — a high-quality education to benefit their families and provide skilled workers for their businesses.”
A statewide initiative to develop and retain STEM talent is now in its fifth year. STEMflorida was created to work with educators, students and industries to raise awareness. Florida’s five regional offices for K-12 school improvement include STEM coordinators, math and science specialists, and career and technical education (CTE) experts.
To assist, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has developed a state-specific list of the occupations that defines STEM. Health-care occupations are at the top, closely followed by jobs in computers and math.
So what educational strategies are now in place? Have school curriculums been reworked à la the 1960s space race?
Back then, no bucks meant no Buck Rogers. It’s no different today — it all starts with money. This past January, Gov. Rick Scott committed $30 million from the state’s budget specifically for STEM-related workforce training.
Workers can take advantage of educational grants and on-the-job STEM training through CareerSource Florida, a statewide network of career development professionals. By identifying and cultivating Florida’s STEM talent pool, CareerSource helps employers like Craig find the skills and experience they seek. “We took advantage of CareerSource programs to hire and retrain displaced aerospace workers.”
THINKING ABOUT TOMORROW
But what about funding for the next generation? Dr. Jonathan P. Keener, director of STEM programs for the Florida Department of Education, points to federal program grants such as the $8 million Mathematics and Science Partnerships (MSP) offered at colleges and universities across the state.
STEM education was a major emphasis in a $700 million allocation of federal funding to Florida for Race to the Top. Every school district implemented one of 22 approved STEM career academies to achieve industry certification. In the process, enrollment in accelerated STEM courses increased by 7 percent, and enrollment in STEM career academies increased by 3 percent statewide from 2012 to 2014. Since 2008 to 2009, statewide enrollment in accelerated STEM courses and career academies has increased 46 percent.
“Many more of the state’s best students are now considering STEM careers,” says Keener.
Educational initiatives extend to all socioeconomic levels. Funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s GEAR UP grant provides early intervention for prioritized K-12 students in targeted high-need or rural school districts. More than 1,300 gifted students in 53 schools across 27 rural school districts also benefit from increased access to accelerated STEM coursework through FloridaLearns STEM Scholars.
Local tax revenues help fund STEM training for K-12 teachers and content in most Florida school districts. Keener singles out particularly strong STEM education programs in all of the elementary schools in Hillsborough and Polk counties, and STEM-based middle school classrooms in Volusia County.
FILLING THE PIPELINE
Any successful educational initiative is dependent on quality STEM teachers.
The state’s universities are keeping Florida’s supply fresh and ready with innovative STEM training programs. Keener cited these three examples in the Super Region: UCF’s Master of Art in Teaching (MAT) developed in partnership with Florida Virtual School and public schools in Lake, Orange, Volusia and Seminole counties; Florida Tech’s UTeach Replication Project; and the University of Florida STEM-TIPS (Teacher Induction and Professional Support) Center.
As these and other state universities continue to prepare quality teachers to plant the seeds, K-12 schools are now beginning to produce more quality STEM students. “We’ve seen continued growth in our statewide science fair, INTEL (international science and engineering fair) and scholarships provided through STEM organizations,” says Keener.
Statewide STEM education successes will be celebrated at the next Sunshine State Scholars event February 19-20 in Orlando. Top high school juniors selected from each Florida school district will be recognized for their STEM achievements.
“They’ll also have an opportunity to speak with Florida colleges and universities about their course offerings,” says Keener.
Among them will be representatives from Florida’s newest public university, Florida Polytechnic. The school is dedicated exclusively to hands-on learning and applied research in STEM.
“We’re here to ensure new generations can secure the kinds of STEM jobs that help Florida prosper,” says Ava Parker, chief operating officer of Florida Polytechnic.
Parker knows that moving the needle on STEM workers and creating a mini Silicon Valley environment here will take a united effort from higher education. “We have a great university system in Florida that can quickly respond to workforce needs,” says Parker. “Florida Poly is just one more piece of the puzzle.”
The university’s first class of 528 students enrolled in August; 1,700 students are expected by 2016. Eventual total campus enrollment is pegged at 5,000. This allows the school to offer a more personalized brand of STEM education.
Among the university’s 70 industry partners are such major tech players as Microsoft, Lockheed Martin, Mosaic, Cisco Systems and Harris Corp. As other industries see how committed Florida Poly is to hands-on learning and applied research, Parker is confident the partners group will continue to grow.
“Because we’re smaller and can react quickly, we’re in a better position to learn and adapt to meet industry needs,” says Parker. “It also enables our interns to be better prepared to take positions with these companies when they get their degrees.”
Craig agrees that internships like these help college students enter the market with tangible, real-world skills. But she also thinks STEM industries should be involved in supporting and guiding K-12 education.
“By the time students reach college age, it’s probably too late to get them interested in a STEM career. I want to encourage curiosity and problem solving at the primary grade levels first to nurture natural aptitudes for STEM subjects.”
Craig acknowledges the state universities have made great strides to build enrollment in STEM-related programs, citing the newly developed or enhanced medical schools at UCF and the University of South Florida and the engineering department at the University of Florida.
There are other examples: UCF plans to use its share of a $1.79 million grant to increase by 67 percent the number of degrees it awards in computer-related fields by 2018, while Florida Institute of Technology is using grant money to help community college students transfer to Florida Tech to study civil, chemical or ocean engineering.
EXPANDING INDUSTRY’S ROLE
Craig wants to see companies make investments in STEM education. “As owners, we should all consider adding a line item to our budgets that allocates direct financial support.”
She also believes businesses should become personally involved. Craig Technologies has hosted and mentored students from Merritt Island High School’s da Vinci Academy of Aerospace Technology; hosted high school students from the Bayside Engineering and Technical Academy (BETA) in a half-day job shadow experience; and visited fifth grade students at Enterprise Elementary School to discuss entrepreneurship and careers in STEM.
In addition, Craig’s Corporate Communications Manager Carey Beam serves as a board member with the Space Coast Science Education Alliance that works directly with teachers, students and curriculum developers. Craig also sponsors school-based activities such as FIRST Robotics Competition and Odyssey of the Mind.
Interestingly, Craig seeks engineers, technicians, programmers and quality officers who are also well-versed in non-STEM fields. “Anyone educated in liberal arts, human resources or communication adds value through their combination of soft and technical skills.”
And since not all STEM careers require a four-year college degree, Craig suggests that companies with manufacturing facilities regularly invite vocational students to work side-by-side with technicians.
According to Keener, some students are even achieving industry certifications and STEM employment through career and technical education. “These courses have been truly STEM for many years, as each integrates math, science and technologies being utilized in the field,” says Keener. “Some students are able to achieve STEM-related job employment right after high school graduation.
No matter the institutional level, it’s clear that STEM is everywhere. Florida Poly’s Parker is a seasoned education administrator, previously having chaired the Board of Governors for the state university system.
“Historically, our emphasis has varied depending on the jobs demand in a particular time period,” says Parker. “Today’s economy makes STEM careers the top educational priority.”
LEADING THE WAY
It’s been more than 50 years since Kennedy challenged the United States to reach for that era’s top technological achievement. Florida played a major role.
Today, this nation is fighting to keep its place at the top of an increasingly competitive global marketplace. Once again, Florida is vying for a major role.
To succeed, an able workforce of trained STEM workers is crucial.
Now, as then, taxpayers and executives in education and industry are working together to ensure
that today’s students become tomorrow’s STEM leaders.