STEM: Cultivating Economic Recovery in the Region
STEM, it’s all the rage. Its meaning has moved far beyond the stalk that supports a fragrant flower. Today the STEM most talked about is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.
President Barack Obama supports STEM education. In November 2009, he launched the “Educate to Innovate” campaign to improve the participation and performance of America’s students in STEM disciplines. This nationwide effort aims to move American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement by 2020. President Obama is counting on partnerships among educators, businesses and community partners to move the needle.
“Science, technology, engineering and math are just as important to the next generation as the three Rs were to my generation,” Inslee said. “They are the essential tools for success in this new economy.”
The U.S. Department of Labor has projected that by 2014, the U.S. will have more than two million job openings in STEM fields. By 2015 Washington state is projected to have 16,849 STEM-related jobs according to Scott Bailey, regional economist for the Washington Employment Security Department.
Companies like Microsoft are concerned about who will be available to fill their STEM-related jobs.
Jane Broom, director for Microsoft’s Puget Sound Community Affairs, said her company had 6,000 open jobs when she visited WSU Vancouver in December. Of those, 4,000 openings were in Washington and 3,000 required a core technology or engineering degree.
“We can recruit from around the world, but we have a deep and strong desire to hire our own,” said Broom.
Washington State University Vancouver is working to fulfill the very real need for college graduates with STEM degrees. And the effort begins long before students enroll at WSU Vancouver.
STEM across the system
More than 40 faculty with expertise and interest in STEM education in seven colleges across the four campuses of Washington State University have joined forces to increase synergy, visibility and support for work in this area.
The WSU STEM Education Partnership seeks to transform STEM education at WSU, in the region and beyond, by conducting research, initiating and supporting educational activity, and engaging in community-based programs.
The partnership promotes and supports reciprocal collaborations amongst WSU STEM educational professionals, K – 12 schools, community colleges, businesses and community organizations. The partnership is looking to establish and nurture pathways throughout the K – 20 system for increasing student understanding, interest and retention in STEM-related areas of study—with particular focus on traditionally underserved students.
Already the WSU STEM Education Partnership has supported WSU science faculty in developing education initiatives. It is also working to develop a STEM education certificate for graduate students.
WSU Vancouver offers signature STEM programs
Signature programs are those that help define WSU Vancouver’s mission and its distinctiveness in the marketplace. Signature programs leverage the existing strengths of the university and provide a strong foundation on which to build. Several of WSU Vancouver’s signature programs are centered on STEM disciplines.
Mechanical engineering in the School of Engineering and Computer Science is a signature program. Undergraduate and graduate students learn about the world’s mechanical processes and systems, and figure out ways to make them more efficient, time-saving and cost-effective. Graduates design, develop, manufacture and test tools, engines, machines and other mechanical devices. Their work influences all aspects of modern life, from agriculture and energy to medical care, transportation and entertainment.
The environmental science program offers undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to study in an interdisciplinary program that incorporates biological and physical sciences. Environmental scientists bring a systems approach to the analysis of environmental problems. They work on subjects like understanding earth’s pro- cesses, evaluating alternative energy systems and understanding the effects of global climate change.
An environmental science degree can prepare a student for a wide range of careers in industry, government, consulting and education. From soil scientist and water-quality specialist, to lobbyist and technical writer, there are dozens of ways to apply an environmental science degree.
Psychology offers undergraduate students diverse areas of study that relate to their personal and career interests including clinical and health psychology, industrial and organizational psychology, behavioral neuroscience, child development, personality and social psychology, speech perception and the study of addictive behaviors. The department provides a broad liberal arts education and a solid foundation in psychological science. Many students have the opportunity to work with faculty on their research projects both in the lab and in the field.
Although a bachelor’s degree in psychology is often seen as a stepping stone to a graduate degree, psychology degrees are flexible and adaptable. Students with a bachelor’s degree in psychology may find work in sales, social work, labor relations, personnel and training. There are many opportunities for students to apply their skills, talents and educational background to further their professional goals.
The creative media and digital culture program integrates critical thinking, creativity and computing skills with course work in the arts, humanities, social sciences, management information systems and computer science to offer a broad-based, interdisciplinary degree that prepares students for a culturally diverse, technologically complex 21st century.
Students in the program participate in directed studies and internships that allow them to gain real-world experience and work on projects that serve the community. The program is designed to give students flexibility in deciding their career path. Alumni of the CMDC program are currently working in web authoring, graphic design, film and television, the publishing industry, technical writing, journalism, digital marketing, e-business, information management and computer systems analysis
In addition to signature programs, WSU Vancouver has many programs and degrees that support STEM development. Degrees in business, education, English and social sciences give us business and human resource administrators, science and math teachers, journalists and elected officials—all of whom contribute to STEM initiatives.
Inspiring students long before a college application is submitted
The Southwest Washington Math, Engineering and Science Achievement program is housed on the WSU Vancouver campus. MESA provides enriching educational opportunities that help build a pathway to college and careers in the STEM fields for middle and high school students.
MESA’s goal is to reach students who are currently underrepresented in the STEM fields—African American, Latino, Native American and female—and persuade them that their contributions are needed and that exciting and rewarding career opportunities exist for them.
MESA Days are held periodically throughout the year. Last year more than 120 students had an opportunity to showcase their design, problem-solving, mathematical and communication skills on a competitive basis.
Southwest Washington MESA partners include Clark College, Hewlett Packard, WSU Vancouver and Washington STEM. The next MESA Day competition will be held 8:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. March 23 at Clark College.
Another partnership aims to create awareness and understanding of the fundamentals of hydropower production. The Bonneville Power Administration has awarded WSU Vancouver an education grant to fund a series of interactive camps for students in grades 4 – 12. The camps began in winter 2012 and run through spring 2013 at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on “$2 Days,” which occur the first Sunday of every month.
“We have an obligation to help bright young Northwest minds understand the energy industry and the environmental issues associated with energy generation and transmission,” said BPA Deputy Administrator Bill Drummond. “In the coming years, we will also need a new generation of engineers, biologists and other professionals to tackle challenges associated with the generation and transmission of electricity. Our goal is to expose young people to these issues to compel some of them to pursue careers in our industry.”
Through the project, students will learn how to identify the advantages that hydropower generation offers over other energy sources, understand the unique environmental challenges that hydropower generation faces and engage in life-long learning about renewable energy sources. Ultimately, the project aims to expose students to an experiential learning process vital for sustained interest in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Making STEM a reality for high school students
The high school is in its inaugural year and already WSU Vancouver students and faculty have had opportunities to speak in iTech Prep classes and interact with high school students. The iTech Prep students have attended a leadership conference put on by WSU Vancouver student leaders and have taken advantage of speakers and other special events on campus.
Vancouver Public Schools and WSU Vancouver are hopeful that iTech Prep will create a pathway to pursuing a STEM degree at WSU Vancouver for students.
Similarly, Evergreen School District is poised to open the Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School in fall 2013. The high school will serve students interested in health and bioscience careers such as nursing, pharmacy, primary care and the growing field of health informatics, which deals with the intersection of computer science and health care. HeLa High will also offer college credit for some courses and high-level students may have an opportunity to do original research with local institutions. While not located on the WSU Vancouver campus, HeLa High may also help create a pathway to an undergraduate degree at WSU Vancouver.
WSU Vancouver is exploring many options for engaging with high school students, including College in the Classroom, which would bring college coursework into the high schools rather than requiring students to attend classes on a college campus.
STEM into the future
Clearly the need for graduates in STEM-related fields is important to growing the economy in the region, state and nation. And it will take the efforts and cooperation of K – 12 education, higher education, industry, community organizations and more to move the needle.
Moreover, it will require creativity and flexibility on the part of all partners to respond to the world’s changing STEM-related needs. WSU Vancouver will be a leader among leaders as our community comes together to address student preparation in science, technology, engineering and math.
This article appears in the Spring 2013 issue of NW Crimson & Gray Magazine.
NW Crimson & Gray magazine is a quarterly magazine produced by Washington State University Vancouver that highlights the WSU Vancouver community and higher education in SW Washington. Subscribe for free or download the issue online.