Economic leaders push for focus on STEM education

LYNNWOOD — It seems like you can’t enter a conference room these says without hearing the latest buzzword making the rounds in education and industry circles: STEM.

Economic Alliance Snohomish County attracted a few dozen education and industry heavyweights to Edmonds Community College on Thursday to discuss what STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — means for the county’s employers, especially those in high tech.

“How are we going to compete as a region?” That question was posed by Shannon Affholter, EASC’s executive vice president for business development, addressing the audience and panelists Amanda Goertz from the Future of Flight and Mark Lewis of Washington STEM. “Our goal is not just to have a great ‘Kumbayah’ moment here.”

Lewis said the goal of his organization, which is funded by the Washington Business Roundtable, is to help the public understand the importance of STEM education.

“To put it bluntly, we’re overproducing an underprepared workforce,” he said. “We have a profound sense of urgency. We’re trying to articulate what STEM is and what it means to the community.”

Washington STEM awards classroom grants of $2,000 to $20,000 to “advance a new generation of innovators,” Lewis said. Larger grants of $25,000 to $200,000 are designed to “advance programs that work.”

The STEM movement isn’t limited to Washington state. Lewis said Washington STEM is working with similar organizations in North Carolina, Oregon, New York, Texas and Ohio to share best practices while working with industry experts and teachers to develop STEM curriculum.

“It’s a real-world issue and it requires kids to struggle” for answers, Lewis said. “I think we take the struggle out of the education system, and that’s a disservice to our kids.”

Goertz said she’s working with educators to see which STEM curricula work and which don’t.

“I think teachers are overtaxed,” she said. “They don’t have time to tap into external sources” such as Washington STEM.

Internal and external factors that support the educational status quo are the biggest issues STEM faces, Lewis said.

“That’s a real challenge for us,” he said. “The view is it’s for ‘smart kids.’ STEM is for everyone. We need to make it accessible.”

The Toppenish School District adopted a STEM curriculum three years ago and is seeing results. Toppenish Superintendent John Cerna said one-third of Toppenish students are migrant or transitional bilingual, and 99.8 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches based on family income. Despite the poverty and language deficits, Toppenish High School’s graduation rate is 90 percent, and 133 of 149 graduates in the class of 2012 received scholarships worth $1.7 million.

“Most of the kids live in poverty, but that can’t be a reason to remain in poverty,” Cerna said.

Toppenish High School started STEM in 2009 with three sections of Introduction to Engineering Design, he said. Now the school offers 27 sections of STEM classes. They’re so popular that the school’s 20-seat studio has more students than work stations.

Cerna said his school board is prepared to commit more resources to bring STEM to the lower grades, even though it’s an expensive proposition.

“I think we’ve come a long way in three years,” Cerna said. “Before STEM, we couldn’t fill a calculus class. We went from seven kids to 76 kids.”

What clicked for Toppenish kids was seeing the everyday relevancy of STEM education, Cerna said.

“Look,” he said. “We have architecture and engineering all around us.”

Kurt Batdorf: 425-339-3102;

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