Building the STEM Pipeline

Article Access Magazine, Fall 2007 Issue
Image of Doris Matsui

Imagine a day without engineers, scientists or technologists. Our whole world would be changed. We would have no homes for shelter, televisions to watch, stereos to listen to or appliances to use; we would have no carpet to cover floors, paint for walls or furniture to sit on; we would have no cars to drive, roads to connect or bridges to cross; and we would have no cell phones to ring, computers to operate, Internet to access, or MySpace to share.

In fact, all of the benefits we enjoy today come from the innovations of modern science, engineering, math and technology (STEM). These technologies are driven by the talent, skill and technical expertise of thousands of STEM professionals. Without this expertise to promote innovation, create new jobs and enhance the economy, the U.S. would lose its competitive edge in the world.

Statistics show an alarming trend toward a declining interest in STEM careers. “Seventy percent of our senior engineers in the high-tech industry will retire in the next 10 years. Meanwhile only one in four students who graduate each year do so with degrees in STEM-related areas,” says Thomas Landerholm, assistant professor for biological sciences at Sacramento State.  “The problem is made deeper by tremendous growth in high-tech industries.”

The rising tide of young Americans who choose to go into the field of liberal arts versus science and math-based fields has not gone unnoticed. Many regional education and STEM leaders took heed of the gathering storm. Collaborating with Sacramento State deans, faculty and staff, the College of Continuing Education (CCE) helped organize an interactive forum called Building the STEM Pipeline Summit: Partnerships for Innovation in the Sacramento Region.

The STEM summit was a milestone for collaboration and partnership involving local academic institutions, regional industry and national education entities. “It was exciting to have so many key leaders come to our campus to focus on such an important issue,” says Susan Gonzalez, director of conference and training services at CCE. Summit partners included Congresswoman Doris Matsui and Congressman Dan Lungren; Sacramento State, UC Davis, Los Rios Community College District and Sierra College; The College Board, Sacramento Regional Technology Alliance, and Education Testing Service (ETS); and Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), Aerojet, and Intel.

Summit partners helped identify and develop next steps to fill STEM gaps in infrastructure, education and research. “We want to get a good feel for the issues and look at some systemic changes we can make and lead the way in the Sacramento region,” says Leroy Tripette, education manager at Intel. “We also understand it will be a long, sustained process. We’re already creating some good initiatives but we still have a long way to go.”

Image of STEM Summit Industry Panelists

The summit also focused on goals set forth in the national report titled Preparing for the Perfect Storm produced from a meeting of business, education, government and civil society gathered at the National Academy of Engineering in September 2006. The report outlined four goals to call the nation to action, including: raise awareness among policy-makers, practitioners and the general public; strengthen the pipeline of technology and engineering talent; enhance technology and engineering workforce education through research; and develop partnerships to focus on resources.

Thought leaders analyzed the STEM issues not only in the region but across the state. “California is desperate for graduates with STEM degrees,” says Emir José Macari, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science. “Some of the challenges we identified at the summit include our ability to produce science engineers so that businesses can successfully relocate here. We have high STEM drop-out rates. We have not created an easy education path. We need to recruit better students and devise strategies to retain and coach them until they graduate.”

A key discussion addressed training requirements not just for educators but for students. Preparing for the Perfect Storm states, “We need to enhance design capabilities at schools by training teachers and providing materials and real-world design projects that use the latest approaches found in business and government. Students that learn design have higher grades, higher motivation, better attendance, and lower anti-social behavior. Learning design skills and how they are applied in business settings fosters entrepreneurship, creativity, imagination, and innovation. These skills are also critical for global competitiveness.

Leaders brainstormed and analyzed core ideas relevant to improvement of concepts to deliver K-12 curriculum, train teachers to use new styles conducive to STEM studies, and develop private-sector programs aligned with higher education goals. “Third and fourth-graders think dinosaurs, technology and science are cool,” says Landerholm. “It becomes less cool as science and math become more difficult. It turns kids off. We have to change how we teach hard subjects.”

STEM shortage infographic

Industry leaders embraced the idea of K-12 partnerships to align curriculum and build proficiency and competency that lead to technological literacy and fluency before students enter the higher education system. “We sometimes feel high school kids do not come to college properly prepared to go into a scientific or technological career,” says Macari. “We need to partner with the K-12 system to transition students from high school to a community college or university.”

This means looking across all education levels to coalesce a unified effort. “Right now, we don’t have the cooperation we need from the industries and education working together — that will be the first step to making all this work,” explains Landerholm. “We need to stop thinking that only the universities can take care of this problem. We need to start younger. We need proper equipment such as microscopes in the 4th grade. We need to build a better foundation and infrastructure.”

Changing the system might seem as lofty as changing the world but STEM summit leaders believe they can do it. “It’s a big, bold process,” explains Rafael Magallan, director of state services for The College Board. “But it’s a process we want to take on. We have to attract not just teachers but the right teachers with the right degrees. We don’t want our physical education teachers teaching math and science. We need enough teachers who have adequate content mastery and appropriate content to teach. We also have to have pre-service, in-service and post-service training so teachers can obtain the skills they need. Then we need the ability to transfer those skills to students.”

Then, perceptions need to change. While legal and forensic career field attract mainstream attention through popular television shows such as Law & Order and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, STEM fields have not been promoted. “You have to find ways to showcase engineering as a noble profession; as a money-making profession; and as something that can lead you to a long-term career,” says Tripette.

The country needs to be galvanized to create the engineering boom enjoyed in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Current and future scientists and engineers have no President John F. Kennedy declaring that we’re going to the moon. “Putting a man on the moon made science and engineering a hot topic,” continues Tripette. “We had something to be proud of. Now we don’t have that motivation right at a time when we need to stay competitive in the global market. We have emerging markets — China, India and Japan — where they’re hungry and want their day.

“We need to understand how we shift, change and provide incentives for young people,” says Sandy Kirschenmann, vice chancellor for resources development for the Los Rios Community College District. “Students believe they can make money and have a nice career without earning a difficult degree. We need to work as a community to make STEM careers attractive again.”

“We need to market like any other business. We’re at a time when issues such as global climate change, renewable energy and clean energy create opportunities for new engineers to distinguish themselves.”

— John DiStasio, assistant general manager of energy delivery and customer services, SMUD

Mainstream marketing and advertising efforts combined with public outreach and increased awareness swell more interest. “We need to market like any other business,” says John DiStasio, assistant general manager of energy delivery and customer services at SMUD. “We have lots to sell. We’re at a time when issues such as global climate change, renewable energy and clean energy create opportunities for new engineers to distinguish themselves.”

“The summit is just a first step toward better communication,” says Landerholm. “We learned we need to reach out to each other and then extend that reach and organize pathways to better partnerships. Then we need to retain the students we attract.”

Image of STEM Summit partners at Sac State

Student retention requires proper career development that keeps up with industry demands, trends and skill sets. “We need to quit training our students in ways that produce obsolete skills,” says DiStasio. “This requires a vision of the future. We want to work directly with universities as a very open industry partner. We want to transfer knowledge to professors who teach to our needs and processes. We then advance our ability to make sure we’re solving the right problems.”

Coaching, mentorship and internships were cited as potential solutions. Colleges would develop programs such as peer coaching. “It takes a community to develop an engineer,” says Macari. “We can take 30 of our best junior and senior students to coach younger students. They would encourage other students and help them get through difficult subjects. If we can increase the number of freshman and sophomore students who become juniors then our chance of producing graduates increases threefold.”

The summit also opened communication with industry leaders to discuss how to create productive and helpful work-study programs and internships to give students a chance to earn money and gain invaluable experience. “We want to develop relationships with both the community colleges and the four-year institutions,” says DiStasio. “We want to create a two-way street and a shared vision to align goals as early as the high school years.”

For example, Intel has since 1989 offered programs aimed at attracting students into STEM fields of study including a regional program where they bring in 60 high school students and give them paid summer internships. “We develop project-based, hands-on, interactive approaches to build the pipeline for more students to enter these careers,” says Tripette. “The private and educational sectors can work together to fund programs that nurture and keep the students’ interest and teach them in a project-based way.”

Today the vision, strategies, objectives, goals and tactics to successfully filling the STEM pipeline with qualified candidates has just begun. Many community-wide efforts are already underway. “We need to continue to find ways to bring people of this region together, to look at the issues, to talk about the challenges,” says Tripette. “We can establish the benchmark programs and then try and market those programs to ensure all of our future prosperity.”

“The summit taught us we all share a concern,” adds Landerholm. “Now we as the community of Sacramento need work together, partner up and work on a problem we all face. I think the STEM summit took the first step. Now we need to take it further.”

Written by Michelle Gamble-Risley