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In search of a bridge between STEM education and employment

SALT LAKE CITY — When Katie Talda graduates from college, she will join the other women who account for only 8 percent of recent engineering graduates on the Wasatch Front.

But women engineers aren't the only group underrepresented among Utah's college graduates and workforce. A recent report by the Brookings Institution showed 24 percent of job openings in Salt Lake City require a four-year degree in science, technology, engineering or math, subjects collectively known as STEM. Yet only 14 percent of adults are qualified to fill those positions.

It's a gap that extends across the nation, and Utah lawmakers and educators met with business leaders in a panel discussion hosted by Microsoft's YouthSpark Connections program last week to find ways to improve student interest and success in STEM careers.

"We're kind of at a crossroads right now in the United States," Brad Anderson, vice president of enterprise client and mobility at Microsoft, said. "We have college students who are graduating and struggling to find jobs, and at the same time, in the technology sectors, we're struggling to find qualified individuals. We have jobs that go unhired across the nation."

The panel identified early preparation as a key factor in long-term success for STEM students. Talda, a sophomore at the University of Utah, has seen the evidence of this in her mechanical engineering program, where she said the number of women in her classes has dropped "dramatically" since last year.

"It's a difficult major. Looking back now, I wish I had done something more to prepare for it," Talda said. "When you're in high school, you don't know what the heck you're trying to do, what you're building up to. I think it's important to have at least an idea of what can happen after you leave school."

Employment gaps

The Brookings report found the greater Salt Lake City area above the national average in college graduation, but more than half of its adults ages 19 to 30 have no college degree and are not enrolled. Only 25 percent of Latinos in the same age group are enrolled or have a degree.

Last year, the percentage of job openings requiring STEM skills and a bachelor's degree was 10 percent higher than the population's share with those qualifications. That gap was 17 percent for all bachelor's degrees, according to the report.

But a four-year degree isn't the only pathway into a STEM career. A quarter of STEM workers on the Wasatch Front had some college or an associate degree, the report states, and 16 percent had a high school diploma or less.

The report argues that the gap between employment and education is due in part to misguidance about STEM career opportunities, especially for those with less academic experience. It also points to lower unemployment rates and higher wages for STEM workers.

"The overemphasis on four-year and higher degrees as the only route to a STEM career has neglected cheaper and more widely available pathways through community colleges and even technical high schools," the report states.

Disparity for women

Adding to the challenge of an insufficient supply of STEM graduates is the uneven distribution between men and women in those fields.

Among Utah's bachelor's degree holders ages 18 to 30, women represent only 5 percent of those in computer and information sciences, 8 percent in engineering, and 17 percent in physical sciences, the report states.

That doesn't necessarily indicate a lack of interest among women for STEM. Biology and life sciences was split almost evenly among men and women, the latter making up 84 percent of medical services and health sciences, according to the report.

In an otherwise lonely domain, Talda has found support through the Society of Women Engineers, which provides opportunities for scholarships, jobs and social networking "that sometimes doesn't happen as easily," she said.

Talda also volunteers with Zaniac, an after-school program focused on piquing young students' interest in STEM through hands-on activities. Last month, the organization launched its "Just for Girls" program, offering STEM coursework tailored to young girls.

On Thursday, Talda and other women from the U. helped the girls make batteries out of potatoes, extract DNA from strawberries, make catapults out of popsicle sticks, and test buildings made of toothpicks and gumdrops on an earthquake table.

"It's good for them to see it's not just a guy thing," Talda said. "Anybody can do it if they have interest in the subject. I think it's important for them to see this is something that we really enjoy, and they should follow something they like doing."

Sidharth Oberoi, president of Zaniac, said giving the girls female role models in STEM fields builds confidence and enthusiasm for learning and pursuing similar careers.

"I think the reason it's so helpful for girls, and girls in STEM particularly, is because they're often walking into uncharted territory," Oberoi said. "There are just a handful of females that are working in STEM careers. They're just so hard to come by."

Teaching technology

For Ryan Decker, a sophomore at Timpanogos High School, finding peers who also enjoy learning is what drives his passion for computer science.

"When I had met someone else who was really interested in computer science, programming became less of a hobby and more of something I was really interested in doing," Decker said. "I love finding other people who are passionate about it, and that just kind of motivates me to learn and go to the next level and do something that's just crazy."

Decker said classes that provide hands-on experience for students also drive motivation and student participation, especially when students are allowed to work at their own pace. But further encouragement from teachers is needed, he said.

"Something that I've noticed in my math classes, the teachers always point out math as being something hard and complicated. And I think that's why students get into the mindset that math is hard and complicated," Decker said. "No one wants to really sit down and try."

Some state lawmakers and educators are seeking to overhaul teaching methods through technology. The Legislature commissioned a study to examine how student behavior and learning changed in classrooms where each student was paired with an electronic device, which they used to complete coursework.

"What we found was that collaboration between students and teachers increases dramatically, about 38 percent. Student interest increases by a third. Attendance rates go up because students are engaged with the devices that they're using," said Joe Pyrah, chief deputy of the Utah House of Representatives. "It's a different world for us."

To help school districts implement technology overhauls, lawmakers are considering providing funding assistance through SB171, which could cover up to one-fourth of costs during initial phases of the programs.

But with the hardware isn't the sole catalyst to enhanced participation, according to Pyrah.

"You can't give a kid an iPad and expect results," he said. "The teachers have to be trained first or you're wasting your money and time."

House Speaker Becky Lockhart said most of that training should happen before teachers enter the classroom.

"Some information that I've gleaned from our universities (is) they're not preparing our teachers in the ways that they should to get them ready to teach with technology and to teach technology," Lockhart said. "We have to figure out how to make that connection, which isn't easy."

Anderson said smaller school districts have an especially hard time implementing technology overhauls because they often don't have knowledgeable staff capable of managing large amounts of hardware. For this reason, he said, classroom technology must be teacher-friendly.

"I think as an industry, we need to massively, massively simplify," he said.

While educators and lawmakers play a large role in improving student participation in STEM, Anderson said students are heavily influenced by those outside the classroom. Establishing a culture of academic success starts at home, he said.

"I think there's a lot of work that needs to happen in our homes and in our communities to get people thinking, 'Your grades in ninth grade matter,'" he said. "As I think about Salt Lake specifically, we need to help our young people understand the opportunities that await them and the things they can accomplish if they start thinking about these STEM degrees while they're young."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com, Twitter: MorganEJacobsen