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Virginia’s STEM Academies

Helping America Stay competitive in a Global Economy

In 1956 America was in uproar.  The Soviet Union, showing off its scientific and technical prowess, had just launched Sputnik and every 90 minutes this basketball sized satellite crossed over the United States.  It was frightening, and the American people asked why we weren’t in space, and why weren’t we moving forward at least as fast in science and technology as our Cold War competitors the Russians.  The answer, after a little soul searching, was that we weren’t training and graduating enough scientists, engineers and mathematicians.  The Soviet Union was and we weren’t.  It was that simple.  The Congress, with a speed that’s hard to imagine today, responded a few months later with the National Defense Education Act.  Its soul purpose was to improve the teaching of engineering and mathematics at all levels – from elementary schools to the nation’s best universities.  It was one of the most far sighted pieces of legislation in our nation’s history.  But, alas that was 55 years ago.  And today, in what has

become a highly competitive global economy we face much the same problem.

Last week, in a column on manufacturing, I mentioned the surprising, and welcomed resurgence in manufacturing jobs in America.  However, as I noted, these aren’t the same manufacturing jobs that left our shores twenty or thirty years ago.  Today, manufacturing, at all levels, is profoundly technical and high tech with a heavy focus on engineering, mathematical and technical skills at all levels.  Industry, as this new generation of manufacturing continues to emerge has already begun to complain that there just aren’t enough Americans with the skills they need.

The reason for this is that America is falling behind when it comes to engineering and mathematical training in its high schools and its universities.  The United States graduates, on a percentage basis, fewer scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, than any other major developed nation.  But, wait, China and India, though not considered developed nations, at least not yet, also outdo us when it comes to the number of engineers it graduates each year.  

It’s a distressing picture, and while we can’t count on a major national initiative like the one back in 1957 to steer the entire nation’s educational system direction in a better direction that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it.  Virginia, on its own, has shown tremendous leadership through its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Academies.  Or, STEM for short.  These programs give students with a demonstrated aptitude and willingness, a chance to pursue their studies at a more advanced level that applies a far more creative program. It’s all about hard work, but the program, not only stresses instruction, but is also project based with strong linkages to business and industry.  It also relies heavily on mentoring from outside engineers and scientists.  As an old school board colleague of mine, Ed Sullivan, put it, when he was quoted in a recent news story, “In business today, STEM is everything.”  He ought to know, because before becoming a teacher, and now a state expert in vocational training, and a big advocate of the STEM program, he was an accomplished electrical engineer and a senior program manager for the U.S. Navy.

There are six STEM programs in the Commonwealth.  The one closest to us is in Stafford County.  The program, make no mistake, is challenging, but its also lively and innovative.  The students work on projects ranging from remote sensing to robotics.  Their mentors come from local industry and nearby military bases where there is a heavy concentration of engineering and scientific talent.  What’s more, to maximize student participation the program is distributed between three of the county’s high schools. 

The other programs in the state are in Suffolk, Halifax, and Hampton, as well as in Russell and Arlington Counties.  They have all gained ready acceptance and the state wants to see the program grow. 

Fortunately, the King George County School System, with its access to one of the most technically focused military bases on the East Coast has become progressively interested in the prospect of its own academy.  Recently, the Dahlgren Naval Base sponsored a week long mini-academy for area high school students.  The response was outstanding.  Now, though any formal announcement of intent is still in the works, there is a clear indication that King George wants to start getting organized to form its own STEM Academy. 

The pace of technological change is faster now than at almost anytime in the history of humankind.  However, with that the demand for trained engineers, mathematicians, and scientists of all kinds, has never been greater.  This is a great opportunity.  But, it comes with a challenge.  To ride this wave and continue our role as an international leader in science and technology the United States has to do a lot more to develop the engineering, mathematical and scientific skills in its rising students.  We can’t afford to fall behind.  A program like STEM, with its innovative and collaborative approach, is just the kind of initiative we need to prepare students for a world that’s not only just over the horizon, but rather, for all practical purposes, is already here.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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