Graduates from Idaho universities are earning more degrees in science, technology, engineering and math than their predecessors, but not enough to meet demands of Idaho employers in a growing technological workplace.
Employers say the state and schools must do more, and in earlier grades, to fatten the pipeline of students choosing STEM careers. They are praising legislation passed this year creating a STEM Action Center in Gov. Butch Otter’s office to focus attention on the importance of more math and science education. They are working on legislation for 2016 that would make computer science a part of Idaho’s public school curriculum.
At the same time, state research shows Idaho still has work to do to change the perception among many students that math — a key element in STEM fields — is more than pointless drudgery.
Business and government leaders say getting more students into STEM fields will bolster Idaho’s economy by leading to higher-wage jobs in a state whose paychecks are among the nation’s lowest.
Are more degrees the best measure?
Students graduating with STEM degrees from Idaho’s three public universities and Lewis Clark State College rose 24 percent to 2,421 between 2011 and 2014, according to the Idaho State Board of Education.
Among college students who graduated from the Boise School District, the state’s second largest, STEM majors have been on a steady incline.
Boise’s rich offering of advanced-placement classes in math and science is one reason more of its graduates may be going into those fields, Superintendent Don Coberly said. At each high school, Boise has 23 advanced-placement classes, many in fields such as chemistry, physics and environmental sciences.
“I think that does have an effect,” Coberly said. “We just have more opportunity.”
Several educational institutions, such as the Boise School District and Boise State University, are working to fill the STEM gap, said Bob Lokken, CEO of WhiteCloud Analytics and a longtime advocate of STEM education.
Boise State has been expanding its computer science program to boost the number of graduates qualified for software-engineering jobs. Until recently, the number of Boise State computer science graduates each year was in the 20s. Next year, 70 to 90 graduates are expected.
“I think it is uneven,” said Lokken, who has complained about finding enough qualified software engineers in Idaho for his Boise company. “Some school districts have more resources and they are probably a little bit further down this pipeline. We are not there yet.”
Counting degrees may be one way to measure STEM education success, but it may not be the best, said Trent Clark, director of public and governmental affairs for Monsanto Co., an agribusiness company with a plant in Idaho Falls.
Monsanto needs everyday line workers with an understanding of STEM to do their jobs in a technological workplace.
“You need to know about computer-integrated technology,” Clark said. “STEM is now foundational.”
Put away the Crayons, get out the computer
For decades, students coming through public schools learned about science, math, history and other subjects to prepare them for the world. But now that world is heavily invested in technology, and public school students need to understand it. That is what is leading the Idaho Technology Council, an industry group, to back a K-12 curriculum in computer science for Idaho students.
Council President Jay Larsen is working with Otter’s office, hoping to sponsor legislation in 2016 that would make computer science — understanding how computers work and how to program them — a part of learning in classes such as science.
If he’s successful, Idaho would become the second state in the country to adopt a computer-science curriculum. The first is Arkansas, which will offer computer science in high school beginning this fall.
Part of the curriculum focuses on coding, or learning to write computer software programs. J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, said coding is an increasingly required skill in the workplace.
“Learning to code is like reading was 30 to 40 years ago,” Davis said. “It is essential to know how to read and write in code.”
Hutchinson’s goal is that 20 percent of high school students take the classes. That could put thousands of high school graduates a year into the Arkansas economy with some knowledge of computer coding.
Larsen proposes drawing a curriculum for Idaho schools from Code.org, a Seattle nonprofit that encourages computer science instruction and offers a curriculum at no cost.
“I would say at least 60 percent of new STEM jobs involve computers and computer-science related skills,” said Hadi Partovi, co-founder and CEO of Code.org. The nonprofit has programs with school districts in most states but has not developed a program for a statewide curriculum.
Even if the Legislature passes a bill, Idaho must train teachers how to teach computer science, Larsen said. Limited programs are already underway with Code.org to deliver teacher training in some Idaho schools.
Will a STEM center bring action?
It was lightning speed — for a legislature.
State Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, and state Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, chairman of the House Education Committee, formed a STEM caucus in the Legislature last session, open to Republicans and Democrats. Out of that grew an idea to give STEM a home in the governor’s office, where a STEM director could channel ideas for improving STEM literacy. By March, the Legislature approved the STEM Action Center to be part of Otter’s office and funded it with $650,000, largely to hire a director and assistant, Nonini said.
A board of directors will include representatives of the departments of commerce, labor and education and the State Board of Education, plus five business representatives.
STEM supporters say the center can coalesce splintered efforts from across the state into a unified approach to STEM education. Putting the center in the governor’s office gives STEM a high profile and doesn’t add to all the other work that the State Board and State Department of Education already must do, Nonini said.
“The biggest thing is there is not a person moving this forward,” said Dee Mooney, executive director of Micron Foundation, the charitable arm of Boise’s Micron Technology Inc. “What are we supposed to be striving for?”
The STEM Action Center could help launch Idaho’s first statewide science and robotics fairs, Mooney said. Both fairs are necessary to help Idaho students get to national competitions, which often require students to come through a state competition first. So far, interested Idaho students have had to try to piggyback on other states’ competitions. Success in the competitions can lead to scholarships and resume items for college-bound students.
The Idaho STEM Action Center is patterned after a similar center in the governor’s office in Utah. That state began its STEM center in 2013 after landing a number of high-tech companies that struggled to find qualified employees, said Sue Reddington, the center’s program director.
Utah’s center, which is focusing on math, has a $30 million budget for teacher training, software programs students can use in school and at home, and grants for students to attend STEM competitions and camps.
“If the barrier for them participating in something STEM is cost, we are providing grants to those students,” Reddington said.
It’s too soon to say how effective Utah’s program has been, Reddington said. The center is being evaluated by a program at Utah State University, which could be used to ask the Legislature for continued funding, most of which is scheduled to run out next year, she said.