STEM is buzzword for student opportunity, from Tacoma to Washington, D.C.

In the 1967 film “The Graduate,” a new college graduate named Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) gets one word of career advice from a family friend, Mr. McGuire.

McGuire: Plastics.

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

If the movie were shot today, that single word of advice would be an acronym: STEM.

A term coined by the National Science Foundation in the early 2000s, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Students from Tacoma to Toledo are being advised that those subjects are the keys to their future. And they are much younger than college graduate Benjamin Braddock.

The Pierce County K-12 schools profiled in today’s News Tribune are just a few of the many that have embraced STEM.

Educators, business people and policy-makers from the White House on down are preaching the gospel.

STEM education is particularly important in Washington state’s technology-fueled economy, advocates say.

“For us, it’s about setting kids up with the best possible options and opportunities for success,” said Caroline King, chief policy officer for the nonprofit Washington STEM, established in 2011.

“Given the great jobs that are being created in our state, we want Washingtonians to have the best jobs,” she said. “We want our kids creating the jobs of the future that we can’t even envision now.”

A 2013 report written for the business group Washington Roundtable makes the case for more STEM education. The report estimated that 25,000 jobs statewide were going unfilled due to what it termed a skills gap, mostly in STEM fields. The report projected the gap would grow to 50,000 by 2017, unless action is taken.

But the idea of a science and technology worker shortage has skeptics, including demographer Michael Teitelbaum. He’s a senior research associate in the labor and worklife program at Harvard Law School.

Teitelbaum is one of a group of scholars who question the conventional wisdom about STEM. They don’t necessarily see it as the key to a lifetime of economic opportunity.

Teitelbaum calls it “a classic case of alarm, boom and bust.”

Caption herey and herey. (Credit.)
Aneleh McMains, 9, top, and John Dehaan, 9, compare their heights to a skeleton diagram they were using to learn about human anatomy in Brandi Best's third grade class at Columbia Crest A-STEM Academy in Ashford. (Drew Perine, staff photographer).

Local schools follow movement

One recommendation in last year’s Washington Roundtable report: The K-12 school system should enhance student interest in STEM subjects.

Schools across the state have taken up the challenge.

In Tacoma, several schools, including Meeker Middle School, are working toward a STEM focus, said Michael Farmer, director of instructional technology for Tacoma Public Schools.

Tacoma’s Science and Math Institute, a nontraditional four-year high school, opened in 2009 with exactly that goal in mind.

Boosting those efforts is the $40 million technology levy approved by Tacoma voters earlier this year.

Industry has also stepped in to nurture the next generation of STEM professionals.

Microsoft oversees a national program that teams teachers and volunteer computer scientists, both from Microsoft and from other companies and universities.

The program is called TEALS, which stands for Technology Education and Literacy in Schools. It operates in an estimated 70 schools, including six high schools in Pierce County: Bethel, Challenger, Clover Park, Curtis, Graham-Kapowsin and Lakes.

State efforts to boost STEM study are also underway.

In 2013, a new law allowed Washington high schools to count Advanced Placement computer science as a math or science credit. Previously, the class counted only as an elective and didn’t fulfill math or science graduation requirements. The law helped boost the number of computer science course offerings.

To encourage high school graduates to pursue STEM careers, Washington in 2011 created a program to provide scholarships for middle- and low-income students who want to major in these fields at public and private institutions in the state.

The Washington State Opportunity Scholarships are funded jointly by businesses and the state, which this year pledged to kick in $25 million to the fund. Microsoft and Boeing have each pledged $25 million.

So far, scholarships have been awarded to more than 4,000 students, including 448 from Pierce County.

Brad Smith, executive vice president at Microsoft, chairs the scholarship board.

“Our concern is that it would be a tragedy if we do a great job as a state creating jobs,” Smith said, “but a poor job equipping our own young people to fill them.”

Joseph Lee, 13, holds up a problem on a wipe board for 7th grade pre-algebra teacher Cheryl Buell to see if he got the correct answer at Narrows View Intermediate School in University Place. (Drew Perine, staff photographer).

Dissenters make their case

Although Washington state businesses make a strong case for the need to boost STEM study, not everyone agrees that a worker shortage is a national problem.

Teitelbaum, the Harvard demographer, cites research from several sources that shows American universities produce more science and engineering graduates than there are job openings.

One study, published in 2013 by the Economic Policy Institute, said that only 1 of every 2 STEM college graduates is hired into a STEM job each year.

If shortages were widespread, Teitelbaum said, there would be evidence of rapidly rising wages and employment growth in those fields. He says that’s not the case. The Economic Policy Institute study found that wages for information technology workers, for example, had remained flat for more than a decade.

Teitelbaum also notes that not all STEM fields are created equal. Petroleum engineers are currently at the top of their game after suffering through a slump in the 1980s. But students earning degrees in biomedical research have been subject to the whims of federal research funding.

“This is not a good way to finance basic scientific research,” he said. “It’s a classic case of alarm, boom and bust.”

In his book “Falling Behind? Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent,” Teitelbaum says that claims of STEM workforce shortages have been running through cycles ever since World War II. The pattern continued through the Cold War and through the Soviets’ 1957 launch of Sputnik that sparked America’s space race in the 1960s.

In the 1980s, the seminal “A Nation at Risk” federal report that depicted failing American schools rang the alarm bell again, as did the 1990s high-tech boom, which was followed by a high-tech bust.

Teitelbaum said that while it’s possible to find some specialties in short supply, business-backed arguments for a pervasive national STEM worker shortage are overblown.

“We know there have been a major set of claims that are pretty persistent and well-financed,” he said. “We know a lot of money has been spent to make this case, mostly from the IT and computing industry.”

He and others contend that employers in those industries cite shortages to justify hiring workers from abroad. One analysis of temporary visas showed that in 2010, Washington companies employed nearly 18,000 such visa holders, mostly in jobs requiring computer and math skills.

“If you import labor into a market without a shortage, you are going to, at the very least, keep wages from rising,” Teitelbaum said.

Shortage or not, STEM majors still have higher-than-average earnings.

A 2013 report from the Brookings Institution estimates the STEM wage premium at 14 percent for jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with non-STEM jobs with similar educational requirements. In today’s world, many blue collar and technical jobs that don’t demand a bachelor’s degree may require STEM knowledge. And Brookings estimates the wage premium for those jobs is 10 percent.

The report says that STEM workers in the greater Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area average $79,490. That compares with non-STEM workers at $45,072.

Microsoft’s Smith said that entry-level graduates in computer science can start their careers at his company earning $100,000.

And he said unemployment rates in that field are extremely low, around 2 percent.

Linda Rosen, CEO of a national STEM education advocacy group called Change the Equation, said one reason there’s debate over the STEM shortage is because everyone is using different data and different definitions of what constitutes STEM.

“Certainly, there is evidence to show that people with advanced degrees in life sciences are overabundant,” she said. “There is a glut of Ph.Ds in some fields.”

But she said Washington state is a perfect example of why schools need to step up their game.

“You have mega-employers who need STEM skills,” she said.

Caption herey and herey. (Credit.)
Franklin Pierce High teacher Larry Landow inspects a dump truck-like vehicle created by Wyatt Fueston, 16, left, Hunter Hoberg, 17, and Jonathan Frick, 18, in his Principles of Engineering class. (Drew Perine, staff photographer).

Underrepresented groups get a chance

Some studies show a rising interest in STEM careers among young adults. Those same studies also document a growing gender gap, with interest from girls decreasing. Minority students and those from low-income families also are underrepresented.

Nationally and in Washington, STEM programs are working to recruit more interest from those groups.

One example is based at the University of Washington Tacoma. UWT’s Math-Science Leadership program offers a free summer program for middle and high school students who have traditionally been underrepresented in these fields.

During a three-week program, kids work with UWT students and faculty on STEM projects and meet STEM professionals. Students may conduct air and water testing, design video games or learn about cyber security.

Advocates believe there’s more to STEM education than just career preparation.

In an age when technology dominates culture, they say, math and science literacy has become a basic underpinning of 21st century citizenship.

And students with a STEM background can transfer their skills to a wide variety of industries, from Wall Street to Hollywood.

“STEM skills and competencies are being more broadly demanded in all areas of the economy,” said King, of Washington STEM. “It’s not just high-tech companies.”

She said these skills are what will enable students “to participate in our democracy and make good choices.”

Added Tacoma’s Farmer: “This is where the world is headed. The thinking that goes into learning code or programming a robot is good thinking. It helps you to be a good problem-solver and teaches you how to collaborate with a team.

“It’s almost to the point where it’s essential.”

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