April 1, 2008

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Sprouting STEMs

Building a Smarter Workforce Begins with Math and Science

Peri Kinder

April 1, 2008

Train A leaves Northbrook traveling at 70 mph heading toward Westbend, 260 miles away. At the same time, Train B leaves the Westbend station traveling toward Northbrook at 60 mph. How much time will it take before the trains meet? For anyone who struggled through algebra class, math problems like this one create frustrating stumbling blocks. But according to Richard Nelson, president of the Utah Technology Council, working through these story problems not only strengthens critical thinking skills, it makes a person more employable in the long run. Nelson serves on a number of councils and boards dedicated to increasing education requirements for math and science. He’s also a major proponent of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) program. STEM is a national initiative designed to enhance the emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math courses for students from kindergarten through college. It’s Nelson’s goal to help educators rethink the way STEM curriculum is taught and to educate parents about the importance of having a strong background in math or science, no matter what career path their children choose. “Seven out of 10 parents think their kids have enough math, or even too much math,” Nelson says. “Math isn’t around to create geeks. It’s here to increase our critical thinking capacity in all disciplines of education.” There are thousands of engineering positions open in Utah’s technologically rich job market. Nelson believes the top economic development issue in the state is providing businesses with a well-trained workforce. But in reality, the state is facing an engineering employee shortage, and Nelson says the STEM initiative will help students understand the diverse selection of careers available when they have a strong math or science background. “Students lack interest in STEM careers because there’s a disconnect between what they’re studying and why it’s important,” Nelson says. “We need to have more counselors in high schools who know what industry needs truly are. But the counselors are so buried they don’t have time to match kids with future careers.” Part of the problem Nelson says, is that students don’t understand the connection between math classes and high-paying jobs. Many high school students take the bare minimum of required math classes, never realizing they are limiting their chances to start a career they really enjoy. As dean of engineering at the University of Utah, Richard Brown sees the math/science knowledge gap firsthand. “Kids get through school doing the least amount of work they can,” he says. “As they get closer to college, they start to think about what they really want to do. But it’s very difficult to major in engineering without a strong math background. And by the time they graduate [from high school], it’s very hard, if not impossible, to catch up.” Brown believes an intense outreach effort is necessary to get students excited about STEM courses. He wants to get the word out to everyone from kindergarteners to high school seniors that not only do STEM classes help people land the best jobs, but jobs that are a lot of fun. For a generation of video gamers, the chance to design their own Nintendo or PlayStation games is great incentive, but understanding the schematics behind video games is based on principles of math and science. Additionally, the basics of architecture, bridge building or roller coaster design are based on STEM courses. At the University of Utah, technology involving brain probes, artificial limbs or hands, and other advances in the medical field is being developed, but finding qualified students to be involved is an ongoing struggle. “We have to convince students that in order to do these jobs they need to understand math concepts they haven’t learned yet,” Brown says. “Utah’s math standards are quite old. We just want to bring our students to world-class levels in math. We could do a lot better across the board.” Filling a Gap Nationally, interest in STEM classes is falling behind those of other countries. Nelson attributes this decline to apathy and white noise. With so many distractions in students’ lives, including cell phones, iPods, video games and lack of good advice, he is afraid teens aren’t connecting the dots when it comes to future careers and current school courses. “There’s a complacency in the school system today,” Nelson says. “This is the first generation who will have a lower standard of living than their parents. We are not an agricultural economy any more, we are a knowledge economy. We need to have kids who have studied STEM.” Governor Jon Huntsman is an outspoken proponent for developing programs that strengthen the technology industry in Utah. Under his direction, the Utah Science, Technology and Research economic development initiative (USTAR) was passed by the Legislature in 2006. USTAR is considered an investment in research facilities and development teams at the state’s universities. The governor believes the aggressive, innovative program will strengthen the economy, create more high-paying jobs and attract high-tech businesses to the area. He also believes the STEM initiative will become a feeder program into USTAR. Christine Kearl, the Governor’s Deputy for Education, applauds Huntsman’s foresight by preparing to address employment needs of the future. “We feel like the excitement for these programs will spread across the state and reach down all the way to elementary schools,” she says. If current legislation is approved, Kearl says $11 million will be used to create USTAR centers, help the secondary school systems and increase contract years for math and science teachers. Year-round learning opportunities will allow students to take extra STEM courses while pursuing art, music, dance or vocational classes during the regular school year. “This will provide opportunities to take classes during the summer so it will free students to take the other classes they truly love,” Kearl says. “There will also be math camps or science camps during the year.” As more advances are made in the technology field, Utah students are falling farther behind their global counterparts. Ultimately, students participating in STEM courses will become the leaders, researchers and developers for businesses brought to the state by USTAR. A Model System Nelson has been following the progress of STEM programs around the country, watching which work and considering how they can be implemented in Utah. As the CEO and Chairman of the Council of Regional Information Technology Associations, Nelson works with Kate Rubin, an executive committee member of CRITA from Minnesota currently conducting STEM forums and seminars across her state. Rubin is president of the Minnesota High-Tech Association and served on an educational task force for the Minnesota Governor’s Education Council. The results of the task force showed that math and science courses are a gateway for doing well in college. Rubin says students taking two years of algebra in high school double their chances of graduating from a college or university. “Math helps develop critical thinking skills,” Rubin says. “It’s not about creating rocket scientists or doctors, it’s about getting students to be prepared to be employed.” The STEM summits held in Minnesota offer hands-on experience to high school students interested in science or technology careers. Whether a participant is extracting DNA from wheat germ, studying holograms or learning how to construct earthquake-proof buildings, the activities are designed to show students how math and science applies to many areas of employment. Minnesota STEM forums raise awareness in parents, teachers, higher education professionals and business people about the need for altering the way children are taught in today’s changing business world. Thinking outside the box will be critical for getting children interested in high-tech careers. “You can’t get kids excited about this stuff without the continuity and the capacity and the teachers to take them to the next level of learning,” Rubin says. “We have to get the best and the brightest into the teaching profession.” Brown agrees and believes nothing short of a full assault will make the necessary changes in education to bring up math and science scores. He would like to speak at every school in the state, talking about the importance of STEM courses and letting parents and children know they have significant decisions to make about their futures. Educating the Masses The University of Utah sponsors summer camps for girls that focus on engineering activities. It also gets involved with local science fairs in junior high and high schools, offering scholarships to the winners. Brown wants more high-tech businesses to get involved by volunteering in classrooms or organizing STEM activities during the year. He also would like to see math and science teachers teaching more courses designed to create excitement in their students. “The worst thing that can happen is kids get bored in math and decide they don’t want to do this the rest of their lives,” Brown says. “They need to understand they won’t be sitting around solving story problems all day. But they do need to have the background.” In order to increase math and science classes in public schools, UTC has petitioned the Utah State Board of Education to raise high school requirements. As of now, the Class of 2011 will be required to take three math courses, three science classes and four language arts credits to graduate from high school, an increase of one class each in math, science and language. Although it’s a start, Nelson and Brown would like to see requirements increased even more. Nelson knows education budgets are tight but hopes businesses will come forward with volunteers to help in classrooms, especially when they realize they’re training future employees. “We have to strengthen business and industry partnerships,” Nelson says. “We have to be involved with the schools. We have to champion the teachers. We need to be a significant resource. We have to have a more qualified work force.” With the engineering initiative started by Utah Governor Mike Leavitt during his third term, Brown has witnessed a 65 percent increase in engineering degrees at the U since 1999. But even that increase won’t be enough to fill the engineering jobs needed in the state where employers are “just dying to have more properly trained engineers.” He wants high school students to understand their choices and realize they can get a high-paying job in the engineering field by taking a few extra math or science courses. Nelson, Brown, Rubin and Kearl all agree STEM courses are absolutely critical to prepare the country’s future workforce. They plan to continue bringing the initiative to educators, lawmakers, business owners, parents and students in a combined effort to bring math and science education up to global standards. With national test scores in math and science falling further behind, Brown feels we need to catch up to, and exceed, STEM expectations. “We just need to do much better than we are,” Brown says. “We’ve just got to.” And, in case you were wondering, Train A and Train B meet two hours after leaving their respective cities.
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