Officials work to broaden ‘STEM’ training access, reduce gender gap

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

If there is one area of Arkansas' economy that is doing well, it is in jobs that require strong skills in math and science, according to Dr. Suzanne Mitchell. She says STEM is the one of the few areas in academics that can make a direct economic impact.

"If you want to improve the economy in Arkansas and get students interested in math and science and produce jobs with a better way of life and wealth, you have to have good STEM education and have choices."

Mitchell, executive director of the Arkansas STEM Coalition, said it was one of the reasons why public schools and universities across Arkansas are placing an increased focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

"STEM education … is the foundation students need to (have) to make a good choice of careers and majors going into college," she said.

She acknowledges that little focus was placed on STEM as a whole during much of the 20th century, but said Arkansas saw the need starting during the last decade of the century. She said momentum has picked up in the last five years with the topic not only becoming a talking point for politicians and manufacturing executives in Arkansas, but Mitchell said STEM is starting to gain traction nationally.

The reason for that, she said, is because even if a job is not necessarily working directly in STEM, she said many times jobs require some level of science or math expertise, if not both.

"Actually, Arkansas has been trying to improve STEM education since 1990. But it takes nearly 12 years, or a whole generation, to make changes."

STEM JOBS REPORT
A report released Thursday (July 10) by the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the majority of college graduates with a STEM-focused degree were not working in STEM occupations.

"STEM graduates have relatively low unemployment, however these graduates are not necessarily employed in STEM occupations," said Liana Christin Landivar, a sociologist at the Census Bureau's Industry and Occupation Statistics branch.

The unemployment rate for STEM graduates was not disclosed, by the study said as of 2012, only 3.6% of all college graduates between the ages of 25 and 64 were unemployed.

But Mitchell said in Arkansas, the state was still underserved by STEM graduates.

"But most businesses tell us they do not have enough (qualified applicants). They'd rather hire inside Arkansas, but we just don't produce enough (STEM) graduates," Mitchell said.

As a way of changing the tide and promoting more interest in STEM within the state, Mitchell said her organization has worked with 12 colleges and universities across Arkansas to develop STEM Centers tasked with enriching "the knowledge and teaching practices of teachers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics" by:
• Linking institutions of higher education to K-12 public schools, educational service cooperatives and businesses; and
• Providing services and resources for teachers, administrators, and students.

SUMMER CAMPS AND GENDER GAPS
One of those centers is housed at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, where Associate Professor Dr. Michael Reynolds, the head of the UAFS Department of Engineering, said the school is attempting to further promote student interest in STEM by hosting a series of summer camps throughout June and July.

Reynolds said using something like a summer camp was another way to peak interest for students in an environment outside of the classroom.

"What studies show, particularly with girls, is they don't see themselves as even considering engineering and my goal in (these camps) is to move their attitudes from, 'I'm not going to consider engineering or other STEM fields,' to 'OK, now I will consider it. It is a viable option for me.'"

Thursday's Census Bureau report highlighted the gender gap in STEM majors and employment nationally, noting that only 14% of engineers are women, the most underrepresented of all STEM fields. A higher percentage of women worked in mathematics (45%) and sciences (47%).

Reynolds said one of the camps held at UAFS in June focused specifically on getting girls interested in STEM fields and he hoped to expand camps that appeal to female students with future offerings at the university.

Within Arkansas, Mitchell said it was difficult to tell what kind of an impact any camps would have when making a dent in STEM majors and employment in Arkansas, especially among females.

"I don't think that we keep good records on following the girls longitudinally, especially if they go to a camp. And I don't know the number of camps across the state. … We really are at the beginning point here in Arkansas of offering camps in engineering or any type of sciences for boys or girls. They are probably going on all over the state, but we're not tracking it."

DIVERSE SKILLS NEEDED
Between UAFS' electrical and mechanical engineering programs, Reynolds said there were about 300 students enrolled at last count and he hopes the camps can begin to grow the enrollment. But he said many manufacturers and other companies across the state are needing a "diverse" group of skill sets, not just those being gained by his department's 300 students, which is why the diverse set of engineering programs across Arkansas' universities are so vital to today's economy.

"I would say the needs are diverse. Definitely the key thing I hear is that students have strong math and science skills with specific technical training. So they need to have a good math and science background and then they need to know how to do stuff. They need to know how to actually go into a plant or a company and actually use modern tools. So that's the thing that we try to do (at UAFS) is give them that broad-based math/science, then also teach them some tools, some real things because that's what industry tells me they need. It's both. It's not just, 'We need you to have a broad math/science background and then come to us and we'll teach you everything else.' Employers are increasingly telling us, 'We want you to have that math/science background, but now we also want you to be able to come to our company and be able to start day one doing something.'"

Mitchell said that was the other aspect of STEM education her group is working to expand, bringing more diverse training into the educational curriculum as early as secondary school.

"I do know there is talk about classes in computer science, programming, coding, things we can build upon over the years to get students ready for college. But we just need more students to have hands-on experience in math and science," she said.

TRAINING TEACHERS
Using the STEM Centers to train teachers on how to bring STEM to the secondary classroom will help with that, she said, as will non-classroom training students can receive at places like the soon-to-launch Arkansas Innovation Hub in North Little Rock.

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"We have a new innovation hub in Little Rock that uses a maker model," Mitchell said. "That's the type of learning we need in school."

As for when the manufacturing world and other businesses could have enough graduates with STEM background, she said it would take a whole generation of 12 years or more before real substantive change could be seen. And she said it would take the cooperation of groups like the Arkansas STEM coalition, other non-profits, universities and the Arkansas Innovation Hub, which hosted its own summer camps.

"We must work totally together," Mitchell said. "I'm with the Arkansas STEM Coalition as their executive director and I try to pull together (all types of organizations, schools and agencies). We're all trying to work together on this."

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