Ranked Near Top In Opportunity And Bottom For Readiness, Arizona's STEM Future Mixed

By Andrew Bernier
Published: Monday, January 11, 2016 - 8:28am
Updated: Tuesday, January 12, 2016 - 12:38pm
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(Photo by Andrew Bernier - KJZZ)
Students present their work at a ASU engineering symposium.
(Photo by Andrew Bernier - KJZZ)
A professor scores one of the projects presented at the ASU engineering symposium.
(Photo by Andrew Bernier - KJZZ)
Students present their work at a ASU engineering symposium.
(Photo by Andrew Bernier - KJZZ)
Students present their work on automotive sensors at a ASU engineering symposium.

Arizona is recognized as a leader in educational opportunities for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). But the state consistently ranks near the bottom for how it prepares its students in STEM. This has industry and education leaders worried recent STEM investments may be squandered.

To close the fall semester, ASU engineering students gathered to present their work. Hundreds of students and professors in a large auditorium pore over research projects ranging from a Bluetooth-enabled doggie door to automated driving sensors. Some of these students are looking for work, and they’re in a good place for it.

“Arizona ranks fourth in the nation in the projected growth of STEM jobs," said Claus Von Zastrow with Change the Equation, a nonprofit STEM business partnership. "About 23 percent in the next 10 years. So that translates into a lot of opportunity for young people.”

MORE STEM NEWS: STEM Guitar Project Strikes A Chord With Arizona Teachers

Just how much opportunity?

"While overall unemployment in Arizona is higher than in the nation as a whole, unemployment in STEM jobs is lower at 2.5 percent," Von Zastrow said. "And all this means is that if you have a STEM job in Arizona, you have real advantages over those who don’t.”

Change the Equation measured several variables in the STEM industry and education, such as wages, diversity and teacher credentials, using census and government data. It then ranked the 50 states and D.C. While Arizona consistently ranked in the top 10 for STEM opportunities, “it ranks near the bottom in preparing students for those very jobs that are going to be in such abundance in the next ten years or so,” Von Zastrow said.

STEM Teacher And Instruction Shortcomings

Science Foundation Arizona’s Leonard Fine said the state’s STEM shortcomings start with those in the classroom.

“It’s clear that teachers are embattled," said Fine. "There are all kinds of issues with their retention and their development in education.”

“Arizona ranks 46th in the number of eighth-graders who have teachers who feel they have what they need to teach," said Von Zastrow. "Teachers right now, as standards change, feel often that they need more support, and the data shows that they’re not getting nearly the support that they need.”

Von Zastrow also said when teachers are unfamiliar with concepts, they tend to avoid them. For example, Arizona ranks 50th for math teachers who have a degree in math and 41st in the number of hours per week spent on science, which is just two.

“Which is really not enough," Von Zastrow said. "And so you’re building a very shaky foundation in science that early in elementary school. That leaves Arizona students at a disadvantage later on as they go into middle school and high school. They have to catch up and that’s often too late.”

“Teachers currently aren't prepared with content with knowledge," said Tracy Bame with Freeport-McMoRan, one of Arizona’s largest STEM companies. "They’re prepared with pedagogy, which is basically how to teach. So, how do you prepare teachers to give them some of that content knowledge and build their confidence in science and math?”

Bame said a lack of prepared teachers is troubling for industry to envision Arizona students becoming STEM workers. “Over the next couple of decades and far into the future, there is not going to be a job that doesn’t require a solid understanding of STEM disciplines,” Bame said.

The STEM Industry Heightens Demands

Leonard Fine said companies are taking less time to catch-up incoming employees on missing skills.

“Industry no longer wants to take responsibility for adjusting the training," said Fine. "Companies want people who are trained now. Google goes out of it’s way to find the best people to jump in now.

And if Google or other tech companies can’t find good talent locally, Bame said it costs them.

“Any time business has to look for talent outside the state, there’s a higher cost because you’re talking about relocation and recruiting expenses. It’s also more time consuming. So, there’s a huge cost advantage when we’re able to find talent locally,” said Bame.

Arizona ranks 43rd for a graduation rate near 75 percent, and of those who earn a STEM certificate or degree, Arizona again ranks 43rd. Linda Coyle, also with Science Foundation Arizona, said this may deter STEM companies from relocating to the state.

“These are educated people and they want their children to go to a good school," said Coyle. "If I’m a CEO, I want my kids to go to the best school. We have this reputation of having poor schools because of the lack of funding on per pupil expenditures.”

That lack of funding has forced underprepared teachers to use opdated resources.

“I don’t think we can use the tools that we’ve had in the past to prepare our kids for the future," Coyle said. "We’ve got to look at what materials our kids need. We talk hands-on, it’s this whole experimental design, problem, project based instruction. And that involves IT, technology and STEM-related content.”

Diversity In STEM Takes A Hit

This lack of resources particularly has hurt lower-income and minority populations. Arizona ranks 41st in what Change the Equation’s Von Zastrow calls STEM diversity. Minorities make up less than half of the college-age population, but only comprise about 20 percent of STEM degrees.

“People of color in Arizona are growing as a share of the population and fast," said Von Zastrow. "Arizona is relying on a shrinking percentage of the population for filling its STEM jobs.”

Science Foundation Arizona is increasing STEM networking to reach underrepresented populations. Fine said this ranges from teacher development to connecting established STEM communities with aspiring ones. “It’s a question of providing education that serves local needs and needs of the moment," said Fine. "There have always been new industries, the railroads, automotives, what we take for granted now. those were all new industries at one time or another."

MORE STEM NEWS: Arizona Native American Students Travel To Sri Lanka As STEAM Ambassadors

Making Of The Modern Renaissance Person

Fine said training students STEM skills is critical to survive in the modern workforce, but he notes developing people like factory workers from industries past won’t work. “Being a kind of modern renaissance person is perhaps very important,” Fine said.

This is where he thinks a liberal arts education can help.

“The liberal arts need to be seen in a new light," said Fine. "The need to include mathematics, and science and engineering. They need to be inclusive in a way that makes renaissance people. I still think if you want to be an English major, go be an English major, but be an English major who knows how to code.”

And coding may be one of the best skills for anyone to get in Arizona, which is 2nd nationwide in computing at 27 percent job growth. With STEM jobs growing faster than non-STEM jobs, Von Zastrow said the money in STEM earnings makes learning these skills worth it.

“Arizona ranks 9th in the STEM wage premium, the amount of extra money you earn if you’re in a STEM field over what you would earn if you were in any other field," said Von Zastrow. "The median earnings in Arizona STEM jobs are more than $36 an hour, more than twice the median earnings in other jobs.”

Fine thinks if college students, English majors or otherwise, picks up a STEM related skill to complement their regular studies, it would serve them well with changing tech and industries.

“The genius is the one who recognizes how change is taking place and what to do about keeping pace with change," Fine said. "And I guess American ingenuity is built around a genius of a kind that was able to pick up on that.”

STEM Learning Emerges Outside The Classroom

Coyle said access to technology outside of school has skyrocketed. “Today’s kids are just inundated with technology," she said. "I mean it’s almost a babysitting tool for some parents now as they hand the kid the laptop or the iPad.”

Which is why Coyle thinks introducing STEM concepts later in high school is too late.

“We need to start embedding computer science and computational thinking in grades K-6 and start it at the bottom with some basic coding, some robotics, and basic engineering," Coyle said. "And then moving it up through after-school clubs.”

Which is still a challenge for schools and community programs. Arizona ranks in the bottom five for STEM engagement in after-school opportunities, but Von Zastrow thinks emerging programs like Robotics clubs are promising.

RELATED: AIA Recognizes Robotics As A High School Sport

“In Arizona, there is a wealth of these programs, many of them home-grown," said Von Zastrow. "There’s a lot of energy in the state, a lot of people doing really incredible things. But the reality is these kinds of programs reach far too few students in Arizona so there’s gotta be something like a all-hands-on-deck effort.”

Back at the ASU auditorium, many of these students were inspired by after-school clubs to make engineering their major. And soon, they will be a hot commodity on the job market. While this scene still may be the exception and not the norm in Arizona, it makes the future of STEM in Arizona seem promising.

“STEM can be your ticket,” said Von Zastrow.

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