2013 could be Washington’s year of STEM education

April 30, 2013 

During last year’s gubernatorial campaign, then-candidate Jay Inslee said he wanted to be Washington’s first science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) governor. As governor, Inslee has taken strong steps toward delivering on that promise, championing and supporting measures to improve STEM education.

It’s also exciting to see that legislators from both sides of the aisle are also stepping up to do their part.

As we enter the home stretch of the 2013 session, we hope the governor and Legislature continue to make STEM education a nonpartisan priority. 2013 needs to be the year we have a STEM governor and a STEM Legislature so that all Washington state students are STEM-literate and prepared for the careers of tomorrow.

Some might say that the Legislature should focus on the most fundamental education task it faces – finding the money to meet its constitutional duty to provide K-12 basic education. We agree and argue that STEM must be at the heart of any McCleary solution. In today’s world, an education without a rigorous foundation in STEM does not prepare students for the modern workplace or everyday life — the very goals of basic education.

Prioritizing STEM education doesn’t just make sense for delivering on the goals of basic education, it is also critical for spurring economic recovery and growth. Washington ranks No. 1 in STEM job creation, but we have a severe disconnect between the STEM jobs our economy is creating and the skills our students are learning.

A recent study conducted for the Washington Roundtable by the Boston Consulting Group found that there are 25,000 unfilled jobs in Washington because the state’s residents don’t have the right skills. That number could grow to 50,000 by 2017, with 90 percent of the jobs in STEM and health care fields.

In my own company, McKinstry, nearly every position requires STEM skills. From engineers to project managers and craftspeople to energy auditors, we depend on – and have opportunities for – people with a solid foundation in STEM.

Equipped with the right skills, our homegrown students will compete for and win these jobs; our innovative technology, aerospace and clean energy companies will prosper; and our economy will grow. Without them, our students will lose out to graduates from elsewhere, and our economic rebound will lag.

There is promising legislation in Olympia that would go a long way toward delivering the basic education our kids need and deserve. At the governor’s request, Republican Sen. Steve Litzow, chair of the Education Committee, and Democrat Rep. Marcie Maxwell introduced ambitious STEM bills, House Bill 1872 and Senate Bill 5755. These proposals offer a common-sense approach for improving STEM education by spurring greater coordination, innovation and accountability.

A newly created STEM Education Innovation Alliance would rally government, business and education leaders to work together in creating a strong STEM education system from early learning through college.

The legislation also calls for identifying and spreading best practices around the state. The nonprofit organization that I chair, Washington STEM, stands ready to provide private matching funds to accelerate this work. While the Maxwell-Litzow bills passed in their respective chambers, they are currently stalled.

As the Legislature moves into special session, passing this proposal and funding this important work should be a high priority.

The public is behind these efforts. They know that STEM equals opportunity for our students and our economy. A recent poll found that 92 percent of Washingtonians believe that the state’s next generation will have more opportunities if they have strong STEM skills; 83 percent of voters believe improving STEM education will help the state’s economy.

Prioritizing STEM will cost money, but the payoff will be better opportunities for Washington graduates and a vibrant economy for us all. That sounds like a wise investment.

Dean Allen is CEO of McKinstry and chairman of the board of Washington STEM, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing excellence, equity and innovation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in Washington state.

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