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STEM - the keys to our nation’s competitiveness

It’s a fair question and it’s one that as a former school board member I feel awkward even asking. And that is, “just what is a modern high school degree worth in the 21st century?” I don’t have an answer for that, but for decades, there has been a growing body of evidence that students leaving high school aren’t ready for the workforce, or for that matter, aren’t even adequately prepared, or ready for their post secondary school education.

This doesn’t seem fair. We put a lot of time and energy into our schools, our kids work hard, and we should be

doing better. Nor, from a national perspective, is it particularly smart. The U.S., when we’re compared with almost every other industrialized nation in the world, lags when it comes to having the people it needs to do the technical and engineering work required for a high tech, networked, and progressively advanced economy.
Sadly, many high tech firms, right here in Virginia, look to immigrants, allowed to stay in the U.S. because there aren’t enough Americans with the skills to do the job, to fill their vacancies. It’s one thing to lose jobs to workers overseas, it’s another to lose them right here at home.

What this says is that our current education system, because of the way it’s structured, and the subjects and skills we teach, particularly in math, science and engineering, just isn’t adequate. And while I could moan a little more, cite some additional statistics, and thoroughly depress you, let me stop there. This isn’t the end of the world. We can fix it. If we move away from the education bureaucracy and get creative, we may find that we can enrich the experience of our students, make our schools more relevant, get business involved, and in the process enrich our nation’s competitiveness. I know, that’s a mouthful, but it can be done.

Virginia, home to hundreds of small, medium, and large technology companies, has been one of the first states to actively try and to start to address this problem. The Governor, through the State Department of Education, has organized the Science, Technology, Electronics, and Math (STEM) Academies. This is something brand new. The program focuses specifically on the skills needed to work with new technologies and their applications. The idea, novel in education, is that when the student graduates, not only will they be ready for the workforce, they will also, if they choose, be ready for higher education.

This approach isn’t that new. The Germans and Japanese, leaders in technical education, both follow similar approaches. But the Governor’s STEM Academy goes a step further. And this is the inspired part. The STEM program actively partners with local and national businesses in order to develop a road map for how the curriculum will evolve. Too often, technology training in high school has lagged far behind the needs of business and industry. We just weren’t teaching the most current technology. However, the STEM program, through its “road map” regularly takes the pulse of the needs of business, particularly those requiring technical and engineering expertise, and makes sure the academies stay current.

Nearby Stafford County is host to the region’s first four year STEM academy. The program is still relatively small, with 240 students, but has already demonstrated, through the interest it has generated, and the quality of its students, that it has a future. For many of us, the words science, technology, math and engineering imply something out of Silicon Valley or NASA. But there is far more to it than that. Advanced technological applications are a part of every major field – medicine, law enforcement, financial management, retail distribution, office operations, communications and national defense. But in every case, managers will tell you, that finding qualified technical personnel to work on these systems is exceptionally difficult.

STEM won’t solve this problem on its own. But it’s the kind of program, if leveraged, and applied through other initiatives, that can lead to a long term solution. It’s creative and to my surprise, was an idea that was rapidly developed and quickly put in the classroom. It avoided the normal bureaucratic reviews and endless study committees that so often do in good ideas in education. Hopefully, other states, and other localities, also anxious to give their students an edge in a highly competitive workforce, might take note of what’s going on in Virginia.

Read more about the King George STEM program


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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