Compass: State should back STEM academies in Alaska

Results from the 2012 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OEDC) paint a gloomy picture for America's future. In math, science and reading, American students failed to break into the top 20 among developed and developing nations. As a state reliant on science and technology to develop our natural resources responsibly, Alaskans should be troubled by these results.

To address these findings, states around the country are shifting to an education model focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) to build a modern workforce and compete in a global economy. In many cases, industry has been the instigator of this approach and has partnered with state and local governments to fund STEM programs they see as investments in their future workforce. Alaska must embrace this model to ensure economic growth.

In Kentucky, the linkage between the secondary school system, industry, and post-secondary training in STEM fields is clear. Toyota, along with Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) has made a concerted effort to support STEM programs in secondary schools by working with Project Lead The Way -- a national leader in STEM curriculum development -- to direct students into careers in manufacturing.

This effort, spearheaded by Kentucky FAME (Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education), has now spread to 9 other industries in the Bluegrass State with no end in sight. Students who meet benchmarks developed by KCTCS and Toyota are recruited to attend the Advanced Manufacturing Technician (AMT) program. Students in the AMT program are required to work for one of the 10 participating manufacturing facilities while obtaining their degrees. Students also earn raises based on grades in the AMT program.

Essentially, Toyota, along with Kentucky FAME is growing its own specialized workforce using a STEM curriculum. As businesses and industry attempt to hire locally, this model could have tremendous potential for Alaska students and employers.

Nationwide there are myriad examples of similar arrangements. In Washington state, Boeing has been the primary industry partner in ensuring a stimulating educational experience translates into career opportunities in aerospace engineering and advanced manufacturing. Chevron has contributed significantly to California's STEM efforts, specifically in technological innovation sectors and underwriting the costs of high school engineering programs, and John Deere has funded agricultural STEM programs around the Midwest.

These are only a few examples of industry taking an active role in developing a future workforce at the source: our public schools.

Since 2009, the Alaska Process Industry Careers Consortium has been working with the Alaska Department of Labor, the Alaska Department of Education and the University of Alaska to create a strong relationship between secondary STEM education and jobs within Alaska's major industries. Because of this effort, the Alaska Engineering Academies Initiative was created and has been advocating for funding to implement STEM academies in schools around the state.

Fourteen middle and high schools in Alaska have already implemented STEM academies primarily with industry donations. Students in an academy are exposed to STEM concepts in daily classes over the course of their secondary education. Each course in an academy uses project-based learning, hands-on experiences, real-world STEM concepts and collaborative problem solving built on previous lessons. Students are encouraged to design, test, fail, redesign, test and repeat. Fundamentally, it teaches students how to employ their skills in math and science to solve engineering problems.

In addition to daily classes, industry professionals visit classrooms to discuss workplace expectations, education requirements, salaries and jobs available through STEM degrees and training programs. By reinforcing connections between STEM education and rewarding careers, students will have the tools to make informed decisions about post-secondary education in a sector projected to add 3 million jobs nationally by 2018.

The Alaska Engineering Academies Initiative will seek legislative funding this year in hopes of establishing 25 new academies around Alaska over the next five years. The State of Alaska and our industry partners must invest in an education model that challenges, inspires and prepares students to fill Alaska jobs. Let's invest in Alaska's future. Let's invest in STEM education.

Zachary Mannix is the Alaska Engineering Academies coordinator with the Alaska Process Industry Careers Consortium.