More people, especially women and the economically disadvantaged, need to be inspired to pursue science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, careers, a state business advocate told Tri-City business leaders Wednesday.
State Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, said lawmakers need to get more involved in supporting STEM education and helping students receive the training they need.
And Clarence Dancer, STEM program supervisor for the state superintendent's office, said that most of the state's teachers, while hardworking and dedicated, aren't prepared to teach a STEM curriculum.
But the three officials said the Tri-Cities are leading the way in bringing the new education model to the forefront and showing how it can work. On Wednesday, ground was broken for the new home for the STEM-centric Delta High School.
"You all are doing it right," Dancer said.
The officials took part in a panel discussion on STEM education during a luncheon of the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce at the Pasco Red Lion Hotel.
The state is in a work force crisis, said Kris Johnson, president of the Association of Washington Business, as thousands of baby boomers retire each month, many from high tech fields. At the same time, the state is producing only a fraction of the highly trained workers needed to fill those jobs, requiring many more be imported from other states or countries.
"Boeing alone needs 20,000 engineers by 2020," he said.
That means education needs to change significantly, the leaders said.
Students "can no longer say they can't do math, or science is for nerds," Dancer said.
State and school leaders need to look for more public-private partnerships to advance STEM education in schools as state funding is already limited, Brown said. Universities need to loosen the bottleneck on generating trained graduates by expanding departments and teaching more students.
However, the Tri-Cities already provides a model for how to improve the system. The public-private collaboration that created and has sustained Delta High is something that needs to be carbon copied across the state, Dancer said.
It has spawned and fed other efforts, including development of STEM elementary schools in Pasco and other initiatives, such as the recently formed Mid-Columbia STEM Education Collaboratory.
There are a lot of challenges to overcome, the officials said. Teachers need to be better trained and have more opportunities to advance the ability to teach STEM, Dancer said.
More resources need to be made available to schools and parents, especially those who feel they can't help their student with their math homework, must be shown they can still be advocates for STEM education.
Making that happen, though, requires following the same approach the Tri-Cities has taken: Cooperation.
"To make this real, everyone has to participate," Dancer said.