A 2014 report released by the U.S. Department of Education found that 45 out of 50 states had teacher shortages in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in the previous school year. In our technology-driven global economy, STEM education is needed now more than ever, and Utah ought to be doing everything possible to attract and keep good STEM teachers to equip schoolchildren with the necessary skills to succeed in an increasingly competitive work environment.
That’s why the Utah Legislature’s decision to create one-time STEM education grants to Dixie State University and Southern Utah University was such a good idea. Both schools have effective programs in place that are graduating large numbers of STEM students, as well as professional development for teachers in STEM-related areas. Each university will receive a one-time grant of $280,000, which will fund an array of approaches to improve STEM education, including summer camps that will introduce children to the basics of computers and robotics. In 2014, SUU certified 40 of its graduates as STEM teachers, and school officials hope this grant will allow them to double that number in the coming year.
All of that is very encouraging, but this one-time funding creates a great deal of uncertainty about the years to come. Expanding programs, even good ones, also expands expectations that can be dashed if the funding isn’t renewed the next time around. These grants came during a session in which Utah enjoyed a massive surplus of more than $700 million, which allowed $515 million of that money to be spent on education. What happens to these grants in a leaner year, when other good priorities are demanding the Legislature’s attention?
Rep. John Stanard, R-St. George, worked to secure this funding and recognizes that challenge. He points to the fact that both schools have “already proven their program[s have] had success,” and that the impact of these grants will be measurable and justify their renewal in the future. William Heyborne, director of the SUU Center for STEM Teaching and Learning, is also hopeful these grants will become ongoing, since lack of funding does not allow them to accommodate all students with interest in STEM education. "Every year because of funding limitations, there are dozens and dozens of kids we have to turn away," Heyborne told the Deseret News.
That’s a tragedy, given the overwhelming demand for STEM teachers throughout the country.
We applaud the Legislature for issuing these grants. While no one legislature can bind the hands of another, we hope future legislative sessions will find ways to continue to provide these schools with the resources they need on an ongoing basis.