Yakima County Development Association - Roundtable Group Focuses on STEM Education

Jonathan Smith

The President’s Pen is a weekly blog written by Jonathan Smith, New Vision’s President and CEO about local economic development projects and initiatives. It also covers economic trends, workforce issues, business climate policies, and manufacturing news. 



Roundtable Group Focuses on STEM Education

Roundtable Group Focuses on STEM Education

April 06, 2012

Last week our Business and Industry Roundtable met with local educators at the Yakima Skills Center to learn more about STEM Education. STEM is an important national initiative that underscores the need to increase student interest and success in these fields (science, technology, engineering & math).  This initiative also underscores the importance of teaching these subjects in an interdisciplinary manner. By mixing student work in math and engineering or technology and science, classrooms best represent how these disciplines actually work in real world settings. Further integrating science, technology, engineering and math curricula must be a central part of improving local schools.

Locally most of our schools are dabbling with STEM initiatives. Some school districts like Toppenish and East Valley are implementing these initiatives with the help of Project Lead the Way grants and teacher training support. Other districts are using other funds and resources to support STEM education. The bottom line though is that the resources to support STEM are rather limited and scattered. As a result local schools are doing their best to advance STEM learning but forced to do it in a rather piecemeal way.

Luis Gonzales and Yanet Bravo
Even though STEM education is only emphasized in a few places across our local school system, the classes and educational outcomes from these efforts are outstanding. Our Roundtable group heard from three students involved with STEM – Janez Bravo and Luis Gonzales from Toppenish High school and Kelly Howk from the Skills Center. The entire group was very impressed with each student's story and their laser beam focus to continue onto college after high school.

Many local employers depend on STEM proficient workers at their facilities and more and more of jobs in the future will be depend on STEM skills. I would argue that in a rapidly advancing international economy that STEM constitutes a new global skill standard. Especially for America and us here is the Yakima Valley our standard of living will increasingly be tied to these advanced and integrated educational disciplines.

One big challenge facing STEM is that its acronym suggests it is a rather elite initiative that is only for people interested in math, science and related fields. We need to broaden the definition of STEM to include all academic fields and disciplines. STEM is more about integrating course subjects, providing interdisciplinary education and most important providing this instruction using real world settings and problems. In this vein STEM needs to be as much about music, art and entrepreneurship as it is about science, engineering and math. Towards this end many communities across the country are modifying STEM into STEAM or other acronyms to emphasize that other disciplines should be part of this major educational initiative.

STEM will undoubtedly be important to our future in the Yakima Valley. With a big chunk of our skilled baby boomer labor force set to retire there will be lots of good job openings over the next decade. As a result we have an enormous opportunity to advance economic development through education. With over 50,000 students in local schools we have a huge potential pipeline of talent we can develop to support local businesses and economic growth. How we invest in these kids (and adult learners) will determine to a large extent how well our Valley's economy adapts and grows in the future. The opportunity is clearly in our hands – but the consequences of failing to purposefully raise educational attainment are also clearly discernible.

It was exciting to see business mangers and educators network at our Roundtable meeting. Creating purposeful partnerships between schools and employers is a key to moving STEM forward in our Valley. On that level our local Educational Service District 105 (ESD) is leading a planning process over the next year to help our region map out how to embrace STEM and move it forward. The ESD is actively looking for people to get involved in this vital process and you should visit their project website and sign up to help move STEM forward throughout the region.

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