STEM education is the only way forward for West Virginia.
Written by Michael Green
“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” Those are the words of Wayne Gretzky, considered by many to be the greatest hockey player of all time. This philosophy is one West Virginians should adopt immediately.
For decades, our economy has relied on products and services related to the extraction and production of fossil fuels, first coal and now natural gas. I am not suggesting that we should abandon the opportunities that exist in the energy sector. In fact, there is no better state than West Virginia with the resources and intellectual capital to extend the lifespan of coal and gas utilization. We should do everything we can to preserve and grow these industries. But it’s also time to look forward to, search for, and embrace other economic sectors.
One economic sector we should concentrate on is technology and our participation in an innovation- and technology-based economy. That is where the puck will be for the foreseeable future. It starts with education and education policies. The sooner we recognize and acknowledge the need to focus our education on the disciplines required to advance the puck and score in innovation and technology, the better off we will be. We cannot wait any longer.
That Means STEM
Specifically, we need to emphasize the critical importance of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education. The main purpose of education is to prepare our young people to compete in this global economy. STEM education is unquestionably needed to prepare our young people for the jobs of the future. In the future, it is simply not going to be enough to be smart, get good grades, and succeed in college. It’s going to be about obtaining real-life skills in order to get good-paying jobs.
STEM occupations are growing at twice the rate of other occupations, according to recent U. S. Department of Commerce research. In West Virginia it is predicted there will be a need for 25,000 new STEM workers by 2018, as reported recently by The Education Alliance. The need for workers in these disciplines is growing exponentially and, simply said, they pay very well: The average wage for STEM occupations is roughly 1.7 times the national annual average wage, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and STEM fields such as life and physical science, engineering, mathematics, and information technology enjoy some of the highest wages available today.
It should be noted that good STEM jobs exist in sectors other than traditional engineering and scientific research. Workers in the health care industry, for example, average 20 percent or higher lifetime earnings than their peers with similar degrees in non-health care fields. STEM careers exist throughout the innovation- and technology-based economy, which is why we need to introduce more STEM into our school culture and into our curricula as early as possible.
And I Mean Early
I literally mean even in our pre-K classes. It is never too early to introduce our youngest children to opportunities in STEM. They could have a lot of fun, too! Programs provided via our state’s partnership with the Chevron Center for STEM Education and Career Development at the Carnegie Science Center is a great example of how to introduce STEM to our children.
The West Virginia Department of Education is putting more emphasis every day on STEM curricula in all our schools. Career and technical education has come a long way from the old “vo-tech” model. There are dozens of facilities throughout the state—high schools, career and technical centers, and joint college/university centers—that offer outstanding programs in STEM as well as other important disciplines. Great jobs are in store for our kids who are not able to attend, or not interested in attending, traditional four-year colleges, too. Our students who attend our career and technical programs have a greater chance of staying in school and graduating. Even if our kids do not get jobs or pursue careers in STEM, the critical thinking skills they acquire will serve them well regardless of their career choices. It should also be pointed out that similar programs are available for our adults who desire or require retraining or are interested in career changes.
One of the fastest-growing sectors that will require more and more skilled STEM-educated workers is in information technology (IT) and computer science. This does not imply that IT jobs only exist in IT companies. IT jobs exist in every sector of the innovation/technology-based economy: financial services, health care, manufacturing, retail, and more. Here too, the education department offers programs such as the Microsoft IT Academy. All West Virginia high schools and career and technical centers offer IT training to any student who chooses to enroll. Today, digital literacy and fundamental computer technological skills are required for just about every job and, frankly, for functioning at all in our society.
In addition to educating our kids about general digital literacy, teaching our kids how to write code should be a priority for us. Many of our high schools and colleges are offering code-writing classes. The critical thinking skills learned here will serve our children well and, once again, lead to high-paying jobs.
Last year, Governor Tomblin convened a STEM council comprised of business and education leaders from across the state. The goals included making the public aware of all the numerous STEM activities currently available in the Mountain State such as robotics, rocketry and math competitions, science fairs, and entrepreneurship business plan competitions. This year, the plan is to establish a virtual STEM clearinghouse to review our STEM assets, strengthen public awareness of current STEM programs, and strongly encourage our citizens to get engaged.
Wayne Gretzky was also quoted saying, “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.” As it relates to STEM education and job creation, it’s time for we West Virginians to take more shots at the goal. Starting today.