It’s heartening to see school districts, state lawmakers and nonprofits like Washington STEM show strong support for improving education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As others have noted, Washington has the highest concentration of STEM jobs in the country, and yet the majority of our students aren’t graduating with competency in STEM skills.
What’s been overlooked in the debate is Washington’s leading role as a provider of jobs not in a high-tech office or laboratory but outdoors — in the forest, on the waters of Puget Sound or on the farms of Eastern Washington. Natural resource industries — like farming, forestry, fishing and shellfish growing — have been an integral part of our state’s economy since before it was founded 126 years ago.
These natural resource jobs need STEM skills, as much as a software developer or electrical engineer does. The difference is that a budding forester or future division manager at a shellfish company is not going to learn all their critical skills inside a classroom — they need to be in the outdoors.
This is where the Pacific Education Institute comes in. The Olympia-based nonprofit teaches children across the state, from kindergarten to 12th grade, about science in real-world, outdoor settings. In the group’s primary curriculum, called FieldSTEM, students observe, report and learn how every part of an ecosystem interacts with each other, with an emphasis on critical thinking and field analysis.
The Pacific Education Institute, with the help of public and private funding, currently works with more than 100 school districts in Washington state and has plans to serve all of the state’s 295 districts by 2025. The group’s outdoor education saves money for the districts because instead of paying for indoor labs, they let nature become the learning environment.
Research shows that students who learn in hands-on, real-world settings such as FieldSTEM have higher test scores and grades. The Pacific Education Institute also helps districts meet the state’s test standards, including K-12 Science Learning Standards. Many districts that have worked with PEI have seen their students’ science test scores go up.
PEI gets its support from a variety of nonprofits and businesses, ranging from the Russell Family Foundation and Discuren Charitable Foundation to Hancock Forest Management and RealNetworks, in addition to state and federal funding.
Students who learn the FieldSTEM curriculum also gain practical experience that translates well on the job when they later enter the work force. These students are a boon, not just for natural resource industries, but for the state’s economy as a whole. Forestry, for instance, supports more than 107,000 jobs, making it the third-largest manufacturing sector in the state. Washington’s shellfish industry is the biggest in the country, generating $270 million a year.
Unlike high-tech or engineering jobs, many of which are in traditional job centers like Seattle or Bellevue, forestry, farming and other natural resource jobs are often in the rural parts of Washington. These jobs are the backbone of many rural economies where the unemployment rates are still high. If we care about providing STEM jobs all over Washington and not just in the big cities, natural resource jobs and training need to be a priority.
Mark Doumit is executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, which represents private forest landowners growing and harvesting trees on about 4 million acres in Washington. Bill Taylor is the President of Taylor Shellfish, the largest producer of farmed shellfish in the United States. Both Doumit and Taylor serve on the board of the Pacific Education Institute.