We’re falling behind the STEM education curve

Washingtonians live in one of the nation’s hot spots for industries with an insatiable demand for workers skilled in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM subjects. We’re home to many of the world’s biggest players in computer science, aerospace and medical research.

We’re fortunate, because it is projected that STEM-based occupations will comprise 70 percent of all new jobs over the next 10 years. And these will be the fastest-growing and highest-paid career tracks.

Given that backyard opportunity, you might think our high schools and higher education institutions graduate large numbers of students with a STEM focus, compared with other states. But they do not.

Washington lags almost every other state in science and engineering graduates. Twice as many students in Maryland took the Advance Placement computer science exam. We rank near the bottom of states for women and students of color pursuing STEM programs.

It’s a puzzling dilemma, and one that state lawmakers, educators and private industry are scrambling to solve.

The Legislature took several positive steps to invest in STEM education last year. It passed a measure that allows AP computer science courses to count as both a science and a vocational graduation credit.

Lawmakers designated millions of 2013-2015 biennium capital funds for STEM facilities, such as the $6 million science lab renovations at The Evergreen State College and nearly $42 million for a science and math building at Grays Harbor Community College.

Another 2013 bill charged Gov. Jay Inslee with convening a STEM alliance from members of the private and public sectors to map out a comprehensive approach to STEM education.

The private sector is helping this movement along. Washington STEM — a nonprofit created by the Washington Roundtable — already is breaking ground. It has invested $5 million to develop the first three regional STEM networks in what it hopes will become a statewide system.

Each regional network, roughly organized around Education Service Districts, will test, evaluate and share best STEM education practices. WaSTEM also will help educators create urgently needed professional development programs to improve the quality of STEM instruction.

The governor’s proposed budget includes $1 million for Washington STEM to continue its work. Lawmakers should approve the funding mechanism to partner with industry.

There’s more to be done. The Legislature must approve a grant program to create more science labs in secondary schools, approve the 24-credit requirement for a high school diploma, which includes requiring a third credit for science, and allocate more funds to create more STEM openings in higher education.

Boeing had good reasons to insist that the state invest in aerospace education as part of the deal to keep 777X production in Washington. We have a poor record of educating the skilled workforce most needed today by the state’s largest employers.

Unless we reverse that trend, the best jobs in Washington will be filled by graduates from states like Maryland that invest more in STEM education.