Given the dwindling number of qualified, American-born engineers and science professionals now entering the high-tech and national security workforces, it is no wonder the phrase “STEM education” has become a national buzzword.
Experts in local aerospace and defense have also predicted that Tennessee will add over 10,000 well-paying STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs to the state’s economy in the next five to ten years, but whether the state will have enough qualified workers to fill these roles is another story.
That’s why, last Friday, a “who’s who” of local educators, policymakers and business leaders from UTSI, the Tullahoma school system, Motlow College, AEDC and the local business community got together to plan a statewide, nationally sponsored “STEM conference” set for next month at UTSI.
Designed to bolster STEM education in K-12 schools across the U.S., the conference is scheduled for Sept. 5-6 and is slated to include a prominent array of national and state-level professionals in aerospace, defense, government and education.
Out of the need for more American engineers and scientists, the Aerospace Industry Association (AIA) and the National Defense Industry Association (NDIA) are scheduling these types of conferences across the country to help align each state’s STEM education efforts and to foster more effective interaction between government, industry, academia and the public at large to strengthen the domestic STEM workforce.
Phil Stich, deputy general manager of Aerospace Testing Alliance (ATA), said that hosting this conference at UTSI will help tremendously in raising awareness of the need to get students interested in engineering and other high-tech fields at a younger age.
“STEM education feeds companies like ours,” Stich said. “We employ a lot of engineering and technology professionals, and we’ve noticed that recruiting good people locally is getting harder.
“Home-grown engineering is important in our business, but it’s not ‘flashy,’ and we haven’t done well in advertising these careers.
“Hopefully, this conference will help us learn how to better promote engineering to captivate the interest of students in grade school, middle school and high school.”
Stich said that while some local efforts are already underway at getting younger kids interested in STEM careers, such as the First Lego League, AEDC’s “mobile planetarium” and the Polly Crockett Festival’s “build your own rocket” booth for grade schoolers in Cowan, more needs to be done to align these efforts with local curricula to make STEM more prominent in every child’s education.
Billy Hix, professor of education at Motlow College, said that in addition to captivating children’s interest in these fields, more also needs to be done to train and support elementary school teachers on how to teach STEM courses more effectively, despite the already overwhelming demands on their time.
“One problem right now is that business and industry often can’t relate to elementary school teachers, but I’m married to one,” Hix said, “and despite the ‘bad rap’ they sometimes get in political debates, I believe elementary school teachers are some of the most hard-working and self-sacrificing of all working professionals.
“Hopefully this conference will help get the organizations with the power and money together with those who need the support, namely the teachers, who are continually having to get by on slimmer budgets and still meet mandated goals that may or may not be consistent with promoting STEM education.
“Until recently, every state got to have their own set of standards, but now we’re headed toward Common Core.
“Hopefully this conference and others like it will help us develop better benchmarks and training for teachers on how to fit STEM principles into what they already have to teach.”
Director of Tullahoma Schools Dan Lawson seemed to agree.
“STEM education in Tennessee is important, and we’ve had a plan in place,” Lawson said, “but many of the activities so far have been based on past practices instead of current needs and future expectations.
“We’re still doing a lot of things just because that’s the way we’ve always done them, and that’s what needs to change.”
Starting with a reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 4, the event will include two full days of intensive networking, seminars and working group activities.
Andy White, Ed.D. and director of the Aerospace and Defense MBA program in the University of Tennessee’s Center for Executive Education who is one of the coordinators, said he is delighted to see so much support for the conference in the local area.
“This will be good for all of us across the state, especially the students,” White said, “and it’s nice to see it getting so much support from the local businesses in the Tullahoma area, from the Chamber of Commerce as well as the Base.”
White said that while the target audience includes national and state-level aerospace and defense professionals as well as Tennessee business leaders, educators, policymakers, and other community stakeholders, the event will be by invitation only.
For more information, he can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As part of the same national effort, the Tennessee Department of Education also recently announced the opening of three new STEM-focused schools this year in Hamilton, Sullivan and Putnam counties.
These new programs are part of the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network collaboration between the department and the Battelle Memorial Institute.
According to the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network website, STEM education is not only an area of study, but also “a way of teaching and learning that is project-based, collaborative, and focused on solving real-world problems … with programs designed to educate the whole student, emphasizing innovation, problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity.”