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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Washington’s economic success grows from STEM

Hey, kids … and parents. Worried about that high unemployment rate? Think you’ll never pay down that college debt by landing a good-paying job? Well, listen up.

Washington is home to the highest concentrations of science and technology jobs in the nation. Projections show demand in the fields of engineering, computer science, life sciences, health sciences and several other sciences will outpace the number of college degree holders in those disciplines for the foreseeable future. So, just major in those areas and – voila! – problem solved.

However, there is a catch. You might have to leave the state to get educated and then come back, because for reasons that defy logic and self-interest, the state has installed an education pipeline far too narrow to deliver the number of workers needed.

Science, technology, engineering and math are the lifeblood of the current and future economy in Washington state. Per capita, no state produces more STEM-related jobs, but we’re in the bottom five of states that produce holders of bachelor’s degrees in those fields. As a result, the state has a troubling mismatch between skills needed and skills produced.

The problem is multipronged, but leaders in the public and private sectors have joined forces to help the state catch up. Washington STEM is lobbying state lawmakers to encourage passage of legislation that can get the state moving.

First, the state needs to fully embrace Common Core standards that raise the level of instruction in math. At present, too many students need to take remedial math courses once they reach college. National Assessment of Education Progress scores show that the problem reaches back to the elementary grades.

Second, the state needs to provide more support for STEM courses. The state has more than 700 public and private high schools, but there are only 35 Advanced Placement courses in computer programming. Even then, the courses count as electives. To draw more student interest, one bill – HB 1472 – would allow such courses to count as high school graduation credits in math or science. The Mead School District offers an array of engineering courses at the Riverpoint Campus, which has triggered greater student interest. Programs like that must be encouraged.

Third, the state ought to mandate more STEM courses for high school graduation, and expand offerings at four-year universities. In 2005, the state produced 21 computer science graduates for every 1,000 jobs in that field. Utah pumped out five times that many. The state continues to lag behind other tech states on such measures, and each year hundreds of undergraduates with decent grades are turned away from majors in computer science and engineering due to the lack of capacity.

If legislators are worried about support, they should read the recent Washington STEM survey, which found that 70 percent of voters felt their schools expected too little from students in STEM courses.

Washington is at the forefront of the knowledge economy, producing an inordinate number of jobs in rewarding fields. It’s about time our education system plugged into this fact.