Schools, industry, government unite on work force issue

By:  Steven Lane, The Columbian
Source: The Columbian

Aloren Martin remembers exactly when her career dreams took a monumental leap, toward science:

The day she set her hands on fire, without getting burned, during a demonstration of water’s special powers in her Advanced Placement chemistry class at Heritage High School.

“That was amazing,” the Heritage senior, 17, said following an hour-long roundtable discussion at her school Friday with local educators, two employers and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

What should set concerned Americans’ hair on fire? That would be Martin’s blunt appraisal of the need to invigorate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics training and combat alarming shortages of skilled U.S. workers.

“I call STEM the ‘gateway into the future,’” Martin began. “We used to be at the head of the pack” of technological progress, but now America has slipped dangerously behind, she said.

While other countries roll out new supercomputers or stealth bomber planes (China, this month), “We’re lucky to have students study calculus” in U.S. high schools, she said.

“There are so many people who have no idea about working with computers or chemicals,” Martin said. “There are thousands of brilliant minds lost in America.”

The vast disconnects among the technology sector’s labor needs, teacher training, curriculum and testing, student ambition, and exposure to STEM careers were a strong theme Friday.

So were Southwest Washington efforts to overcome those hurdles.

It was part of a Cantwell listening tour on STEM programs that included stops in Toppenish and the Tri-Cities, where she learned of other encouraging attempts.

Wanted: Access

Foremost, there’s dire need for greater access to tech sector workplaces “to give young people a real look at what these people do all day,” said Lisa Nisenfeld, Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council executive director. “It’s really powerful.”

It transformed Martin, who flourished during an internship at a local biochemical laboratory. She said she loved the work there, even helped to discover a facet of a stress indicator marker in blood work: that high heat, not just reaction to a certain protein, can confirm its presence.

“That decided it: I’m going to be a chemist,” said Martin, who once favored economics. She’s hanging on acceptance to an Ivy League school, and said she wished more classmates shared a similar profound experience.

Local employers who understand Martin’s view include Scott Keeney, head of nLight Corp. in Vancouver, and Steve Vincent, head of Columbia Analytical Services, Inc., a full-scale Kelso laboratory, both of whom attended Friday.

Still, many firms fear the time and effort it takes to host interns (such as 40 hours of oversight for a 90-hour stay, one panelist said), underestimate their positive impacts or simply ignore networking attempts.

To arrange internships is a time-consuming but vital job. Yet it’s not funded by Washington state school dollars, educators told Cantwell.

Mike Nerland, Camas school superintendent, suggested a new cooperative much like the Clark County Skills Center, which links students from many school districts to trades careers, as one approach.

“I’m really hearing that access to research is what turns these students on,” Cantwell said, summing up a common refrain.

Gaps grow early

Other, fundamental shortfalls plague STEM advances, also.

Class time is insufficient for meaningful problem-solving exchanges between pupil and teacher, Martin and others said.

“We offer about the shortest day and (school) year of any country we’re asked to compete with,” said John Deeder, superintendent of Evergreen Public Schools.

Deeder said most U.S. pupils trail international peers early on partly because elementary and middle school math and science teachers don’t receive quality training to teach those subjects. Teacher certification standards must be raised, he said.

That observation is seconded by Dave Slavit, a Washington State University Vancouver math education professor. He has witnessed troubling gaps in early science learning and in schoolteachers’ ability to hold “mathematical conversations” with students, he said.

Among contributing factors blamed: misalignment of curriculum with testing standards that, pushed by federal law, obsess on basics at the expense of deeper understanding; and textbook industry contraction that limits school options.

Slavit has 45 WSUV students who are seeking math-teaching endorsement, one step toward meeting pressing needs, he said. STEM program leaders are glad for any increase in their hiring pool, he was told.

“What I’m hearing is, the pipeline (for STEM support) needs to be much lower” than at the college-entry level, Cantwell said.

That realization could help redirect National Science Foundation grants and other federal support.

What’s encouraging for Southwest Washington is a consistent culture of partnership between school districts, higher education and many tech employers, panelists told Washington’s junior senator.

“We are very proud of what we’ve done,” said Alex Otoupal, Heritage associate principal. “But we’re only beginning to scratch the surface” of STEM advances needed, he said.

Before leaving, Cantwell received a guided tour of Heritage’s innovative Energy Smart project, in which aligned curricula tie together biodiesel and alternative fuels technology with chemistry, marketing and other courses.