STEM and the economy

Posted: Friday, October 16, 2009

I hope the hundreds of participants of the 2009 Alaska Math and Science Conference are enjoying their visit to Juneau. This event is a very valuable opportunity for teachers to augment their skills as well as network with peers from throughout the state. As much as this event is about math and science, it is also about economics. With more than 300 participants from outside of Juneau, the economic impact on our community is considerable. A conference of this size, which fills hotels and restaurants, brings several hundred thousand dollars of economic activity to our community. This is only a small part of the economics of education in math and science.

The real economic significance of this event emerges as we better understand the importance of STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering and Math - education to our economy. Our nation's continued prosperity depends greatly on our ability to excel in STEM fields.

The National Governor's Association recently noted: "America's economic growth in the 21st century will be driven by our nation's ability to generate ideas and translate them into innovative products and services. A strong consensus is emerging among scientific, business, and education leaders that America's ability to innovate and compete in the global marketplace is directly tied to the ability of our public schools to adequately prepare all of our children in STEM."

The World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report from 2006-2007 showed the United States' rank in national competitiveness dropped from first to sixth. From President Bush's announcement of the American Competitiveness Initiative in his 2007 State of the Union address, to last month's announcement of President Obama's Innovation Initiative, there is clear agreement that our ability as a nation to sustain - let alone increase - our prosperity hinges on our ability to innovate andcompete.

What is the tie between STEM education, innovation and a competitive economy? As a developed nation, our ability to maintain or enhance our prosperity is tied directly to our productivity. What drives productivity growth? The Council on Competitiveness recognizes that "innovation is the key to driving growth and prosperity ... approximately 50 percent of U.S. annual GDP growth is attributed to increases ininnovation."

And what drives Innovation? Innovation results from a dose of creativity and an equally important dose of hard technical skills, largely in the STEM fields. We have a society that encourages new ideas and fresh approaches, so we are OK on the creativity side of the equation. At a time when the U.S. demand for scientists and engineers is expected to increase at four times the rate for all other occupations, how are we on the STEM side? According to the Program for International Student Assessment, U.S. students are barely in the top 25 nations in terms of science and math competencies.

What about Alaska? Let's look at engineering first. According to the University of Alaska, we are second to last in the nation in the number of engineering graduates produced per capita. In fact, almost half of the 5,000 licensed engineers in Alaska reside out-of-state. When we look at ACT and SAT scores for science and math, in a nation that is losing our edge in math and science, we find that Alaskan students on average fall near the middle of the national pack.

And on the individual student level, the National Governors' Association has identified STEM education as critical to our future, and not just if you want to become a scientist: "The saturation of technology in most fields means that all students - not just those who plan to pursue a STEM profession - will require a solid foundation in STEM to be productive members of the workforce."

So what can be done? We need to embrace the fact that our prosperity as a nation depends on our ability to innovate, which requires a firm foundation in science, technology, engineering and math. As a community and state, we need to ensure young people have the tools to navigate our increasingly technology-focused society. The Alaska Math and Science Conference is a great venue for building the skills of our teachers and an opportunity for us to talk about how we can address these challenges.

• Brian Holst is executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council. JEDC supports professional development and student enrichment opportunities in the STEM fields.

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