Advancing our STEM future

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Last week, NASA’s Day of Remembrance marked tragedies associated with our manned space program: the 2003 disintegration of space shuttle Columbia on reentry; the 1986 loss of shuttle Challenger on takeoff; the 1967 loss of test pilot Mike Adams in an X-15 and the 1967 launch pad fire that resulted in the loss of the crew of Apollo 1.


President Obama and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden rightly praised those lost in the exploration of space. But President Reagan, in his 1986 Challenger memorial remarks, found broader significance.


Calling the astronauts “skilled professionals, scientists and adventurers...”, President Reagan said the tragedy reminded us that “…the future is not free, the story of all human progress is one of a struggle against all odds.”


Reagan saw value in pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. He saw the space program with its technological miracles as just one example of bold people advancing mankind through science, technology, engineering and mathematics.


Those four disciplines have an acronym today-STEM. It used to be SMET, but that needed a little work. But no matter how it is said, there is no doubting the importance of STEM education and in our technologically dependent world, it is obvious the future belongs to those who advance in the STEM disciplines.


In the past 10 years, STEM education initiatives have been adopted at virtually every level in the country, including “pre-science and pre-mathematics” standards incorporated into the Head Start program for pre-schoolers.


Strengthening the nation’s STEM knowledge base is often cast in terms of national competitiveness. We measure ourselves against China, Germany or India in the development of scientists, engineers and mathematicians.


As an American, I agree that leading in the STEM disciplines is vital to keeping our country healthy, prosperous and secure. But from a Washington County Chamber of Commerce perspective, leadership in STEM translates to another word – jobs.


The Team Pennsylvania Foundation estimates that by 2018 at least 60 percent of all Pennsylvania jobs will require post-secondary education, with 970,000 of these new jobs being in the STEM fields at wage levels 26 percent higher than non-STEM workers. However, meeting that need requires new STEM-qualified teachers in our secondary schools. Right now, most estimates suggest a need for an additional 100,000 STEM-qualified elementary/secondary teachers nationwide in the next five years.


As for the STEM-related jobs themselves, you do not have to look farther than our region’s conventional and non-conventional energy industries to see that people with technical skills are in demand. Our nuclear, gas and coal industries in the region all are clamoring for people with STEM skills. Putting their money where their need is, energy companies are aggressively supporting STEM education initiatives to help meet the need of their technologically sophisticated businesses.


This potential for additional energy-related STEM jobs could also solve a problem with which our region has struggled for 30 years –the outmigration of younger people. Today, we can turn that around as the secure career jobs that pay well are now here. All that is needed is a STEM-savvy workforce ready to step in.



Jeff Kotula is president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce.


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