Today’s kindergartners are tomorrow’s engineers

The target market for Washington’s aerospace industry: kindergarten students.

No, they won’t be designing or building real airplanes anytime soon.

But those kindergartners represent a future generation of workers to an industry that has come up short lately in finding qualified engineers and skilled manufacturing employees in sufficient numbers.

With enhanced engineering education and training programs in place, the state is turning attention to the next generation of aerospace workers — students ranging in age from kindergarten to high school.

Recent studies suggest the state’s got work to do in preparing students for careers based in science, technology, engineering and math — known as “STEM” subjects.

Only a little more than 50 percent of eighth-graders in the state were meeting standards for math during the 2010-11 school year, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. But nearly 62 percent were meeting science standards. Tenth-graders fared a bit better in math, but less than half had the science skills expected.

As part of her successful effort to keep assembly of the Boeing 737 MAX in Washington, Gov. Chris Gregoire laid out a plan to intensify STEM courses at several high schools across the state. She called for tougher requirements for teachers to ensure students are getting STEM learning from knowledgeable instructors. And Gregoire asked for funding to help 12 high schools and two skill centers provide aerospace-related training to students who hope to move into manufacturing roles after graduation.

Not all STEM learning takes place in the classroom.

A variety of organizations around the state have their own efforts going on to get children interested in those critical subjects.

The Washington Aerospace Scholars program, housed at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, has been working with high-school juniors for more than five years. Students compete for their chance to spend six days during the summer at the museum, where they meet astronauts and engineers, participate in hands-on engineering projects and plan a mission to Mars.

Melissa Edwards, director of the program, gave an update on the program last month at an aerospace conference in Lynnwood.

About 1,100 students have participated in Washington Aerospace Scholars. Edwards estimated that 87 percent have remained in contact with the organization. About 70 percent of the program’s alumni are pursuing STEM-related degrees in college. And only two percent who start in a STEM program change majors, Edwards said.

Here in Snohomish County, the Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour in Mukilteo has hosted STEM night to introduce young children to learning activities in the fields. Other organizations, including the aerospace training center at Paine Field, have sponsored programs aimed at getting girls interested in aerospace and STEM.

In March 2011, a new organization was launched: Washington STEM, which is connected to a national network of similar groups. Washington’s branch has received $20 million in donations from the Boeing Co., the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, McKinstry Co. and others.

Washington STEM has passed through money from industry to schools and organizations with science, technology, engineering and math projects.

Glacier Peak High School in Snohomish and Monroe Public Schools were recent recipients of awards from Washington STEM.

“STEM isn’t just for scientists and engineers, it’s the best ticket to a good job in today’s market and virtually the only ticket to a good job in the economy of the future,” said Carolyn Landel, chief program officer of the organization.

Applications for the next round of awards are due May 3. Visit www.washingtonstem.org for details.

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