Of all the bills passed by the Utah State Legislature during its 2013 session, one measure stands out as a milestone in terms of its implications for future workforce readiness and the talent shortage affecting Utah businesses.
Indeed, as the state prepares for the day when 66% of the jobs in Utah require a college degree or a post-high school advanced certificate, HB 139, which creates the STEM Action Center, is certain to help align Utah’s educational outcomes with workforce needs.
“House Bill 139 is milestone legislation for the state and for us, to put the STEM Action Center in place and bring focus to the importance of science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM) from a workforce perspective,” says Mark Bouchard, chair of Prosperity 2020 Initiative and senior managing director of the Salt Lake City office of CBRE. “It also adequately builds a strong bridge between the private sector and education in general, to create the kind of students we need for the future workforce. Many good things will come from the STEM Action Center, but it is actually just the first step in many things we need to do.”
The need for greater emphasis on STEM education and careers in Utah is highlighted by data from the Utah System of Higher Education, which reports that in 2010-2011 the top 10 graduation majors for Utah students were:
- General Studies
- Registered Nurse
- Business Management
- Elementary Education and Teaching
- English Language/Literature
- Social Work
- Speech Communication
Meanwhile, according to a survey by Payscale.com, the careers fields with the highest pay nationally are:
- Petroleum Engineering
- Chemical Engineering
- Electrical Engineering
- Materials Science & Engineering
- Aerospace Engineering
- Computer Engineering
- Applied Mathematics
- Computer Science
- Nuclear Engineering
Enter the STEM Action Center. Bouchard explains that the action center has a threefold purpose. First is to create awareness regarding the importance of STEM education. “There is a lot of misunderstanding about what STEM means and what we should be doing, so the action center will have an influence on awareness,” he says. The second purpose is to influence training, not only for students but also for educators. “The STEM Action Center will be a place where best practices at the national level are housed, so it will be a resource for both students and educators,” Bouchard continues. Third, the action center will serve as a resource to the business community where business and education come together.
Summarily, he says the STEM Action Center will be a training facility, a communications and an awareness program for the citizens — especially families in the state — and a place where industry and education come together to formulate new strategies around efforts to produce the workforce of the future.
EDCUtah President & CEO Jeff Edwards says HB 139 and its companion funding bill were championed by Prosperity 2020 in cooperation with Governor Herbert’s Commission on Education, but the bills received broad-based support from many statewide organizations, including EDCUtah, the Utah Technology Council, Utah Taxpayers Association, Utah Manufacturers Association, Utah State Board of Education and others.
HB 139′s passage “is an unprecedented accomplishment,” he adds. “Over the last several years, the work of business community in the Prosperity 2020 initiative has resulted in some substantive improvements in our educational system and the creation of the STEM Action Center is another milestone in that process.”
Stan Lockhart, private sector chair for Utah’s STEM Education Initiative, describes the STEM Action Center as a results oriented, transparent and accountable entity. Every six months, results will be reported back to decision makers in the Legislature and Utah State School Board, he explains. Outcome metrics the STEM Action Center will focus on include:
- 90% of high school students will be college math ready (currently only 66% are ready system-wide)
- 90% of high school students will enter post-secondary education (currently 68% of high graduates enroll in post-secondary education)
- 90% graduation rate from high school (currently 78% of Utah high school students graduate)
- 90% of Utah K-12 students will be at grade level in STEM (currently between 40-70% are at grade level)
Like other states that use STEM centers, Utah leaders hope the STEM Action Center can help close STEM education achievement gaps, elevating the performance of all Utah students in STEM-related subjects while also encouraging more students to enter STEM-related career fields.
To that end, Lockhart says the Utah STEM Action Center will first work to identify the gaps in student performance and then close those gaps to go from current outcomes to required outcomes in statewide student STEM achievement. The action center will first address gaps in junior high school math proficiency and college math readiness.
Next, the STEM Action Center will establish a statewide best practices network, building a central repository of best practices that will be made available to school districts, schools and parents. Further, the center will apply for and collaborate on grant applications for resources from the private sector and the federal government to fund STEM education. The center will also engage the private sector to align education with workforce needs and solicit financial and in-kind contributions from private donors.
Bouchard says collaboration is essential and the STEM Action Center will collaborate with other states on best practices and seek to strengthen collaboration between public education, higher education and the Utah College of Applied Technology (UCAT) in terms of best practices and workforce alignment.
A third area of focus involves applying innovative teaching methods, learning tools, experiential opportunities, digital learning and other techniques to improve student STEM proficiency in the classroom and promote STEM in schools. Over time, the action center will implement best in class learning tools, learning methods and enriched curriculum for every K-12 educator to use in his/her classroom and implement intensive training and coaching regarding the latest technology. Other efforts will focus on energizing STEM competition opportunities for students, embedding more hands-on application of math and science theory (experiential learning) in the classroom, finding and tracking best-in-class learning tools in Utah classrooms to scale what is most effective, and changing the culture of schools to value STEM academic rigor.
Bouchard explains that the STEM Action Center will be a place where private capital can be invested to leverage state dollars in achieving greater performance gains. While the exact manner in which the center will receive private capital has yet to be established, the business community will have the opportunity to invest in the STEM Action Center through a variety of sponsorship levels. The vast majority of money collected will go into the classroom for curriculum enhancement to help teachers and students.
Source: Economic Review, a publication of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, March 29, 2013 issue