STEM, CCs, and Opportunity

The power of STEM, science-tech-engineering-math, instruction is virtually limitless.  In our 21st century workforce, we know that all employees need both a common knowledgebase and key skills.  What may have sufficed a few decades ago, or even a few years ago, just does not cut it these days.  If one is to contribute to the economy, one needs an understanding of technology and abilities in critical thinking, teamwork, and problem-solving.  Virtually every new job being created these days requires some form of postsecondary education, those career certificate programs or college degrees that ensure successful students are proficient in core subjects such as math and science.  If one is looking for the entrance to a successful and productive career, these days it is starting with that STEM entrance sign.

Unfortunately, there are often a lot of misperceptions about STEM and its intended audience.  We first think that STEM is only for those seeking to be rocket scientists and brain surgeons.  Untrue.  Good STEM programs are for every student, as all learners benefit from being STEM literate.  We think that STEM is a high school issue.  Untrue.  There are some really successful K-8 STEM efforts (just look at some of the work being done in states like Minnesota).  There are some incredibly successful STEM efforts being undertaken at our institutions of higher education, both for those seeking careers in the STEM fields and those just looking for a leg up in their own individual pursuits.
Perhaps one of the greatest STEM urban legends is the notion that STEM skills and STEM literacy are only concerns for our current students.  As evidenced by today’s USA Today article on laid-off workers heading back to school, nothing could be further from the truth.  Those who have been adversely affected by the economy (which at this point is just about everyone) are now looking to retool and reskill, pursuing new educational opportunities so they can get into new career fields with current job opportunities and significant long-term potential.
Historically, we see this sort of behavior during many of our nation’s economic downturns.  The economy goes south, unemployment rates edge up, and more and more people turn to IHEs — usually our community colleges — to fill the gaps and improve their chances of success.  Sometimes it means acquiring some new skills to complement existing degrees, certificates, and work experience.  Sometimes it means a complete change, with former airline mechanics becoming nurses or bricklayers becoming graphic designers.
Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, our nation’s giant piggybank for economic stimulus, $1.7 billion is available for adult employment services and training programs.  As USA Today reports, recently displaced workers are looking to tap this aid to take advantage of community college and vocational programs to give them the 21st century skills necessary to secure and succeed in 21st century jobs.
To some, investment in these sorts of vocational education programs is like throwing money down a black hole.  Once and future workers pursue certificates and degrees in a wide range of topics and interests, with little regard for local community economic needs or a true understanding of the employment landscape over the next decade.  We use such funds to pursue personal interests and passions, rather than to truly retool and gain the skills necessary to take a step forward and add a layer of knowledgebase and security to their future.
is it an unfair assumption?  Absolutely.  Over the past few decades our community colleges have done yeoman’s work in providing the sort of retraining programs our workforce needed to remain skilled, knowledgeable, and effective.  As the technology changed, the CCs were there to offer courses in everything from basic computing to complex machinery and technologies.  Some of our best environmental programs are found in CCs.  And we could keep going.
So what does this mean for us now, in 2009?  Put simply, our community colleges are the front lines for effective STEM education.  Those heading back to school are looking for practical skills that will get them back into the workforce and back into jobs with a future.  STEM is the answer.  Those heading back to community colleges are looking for skills that are attractive to employers and needed by their local industries.  STEM is the answer.  And those looking to reskill and retool want to invest their time in courses and programs that represent future opportunities, not the lessons of the past.  STEM is the answer.  As we look at community colleges’ role in the P-20 education continuum, particularly as it related to those re-entering the education gateway, STEM is the answer.
Moving forward, it is essential that we effectively link STEM education, our community colleges, and the students and potential students they are seeking to serve.  How do we do it?  First, we need to strengthen linkages between K-12 and higher education, allowing more current students to see the value and impact of a community college education.  The CCs are not simply for remedial postsecondary courses or as cheaper gateways to a four-year institution.  They offer their own value and their own impact.  These linkages are already being established across the nation, as high schools and community colleges are working together on early colleges and other dual-degree programs, allowing more young people to see the strength, value, and opportunity found on their local community college campuses.  And these linkages often focus on STEM-focused courses.
Second, we need to better link our community colleges with local industry.  We need to do the gap analyses to understand the current employment pipeline and where we may be lacking in skilled employees to fill those new jobs.  What can community college do to help prepare future workers for those future jobs?  We need to better understand our assets.  What programs do our CCs currently offer?  How do they align with employer needs?  How do we build the linkages between the two?  How do we build partnerships so employers use their local CCs for worker training programs, retraining efforts, and as impactful pipelines of skilled future employers?
Most importantly, though, we must continue to strengthen the STEM offerings in our institutions of higher education.  There is simply no getting around it.  STEM literacy is an essential component to gainful employment in the 21st century.  Today’s — and tomorrow’s — workers must think differently, work smartly, and adapt to the ever-changing environment around them.  That requires a core understanding of the math, science, and technology that does into even the most unlikely of STEM jobs.  That requires the 21CS that often accompany an effective STEM education.  Even those looking to work alongside their fathers and grandfathers on the assembly line or at the construction site require a STEM literacy that was never required of generations past.  A union card is no longer enough for some jobs.  STEM proficiency needs to accompany that union bug if our workers are going to compete, innovate, and outperform industry competitors around the globe.
Kudos to those who have already recognized that, those employees or the recently laid off who are already turning to schools and vocational programs to better equip them for the opportunities of the future.  Kudos to community colleges and other IHEs who are meeting the challenge and providing relevant, effective programs that align with industry needs and expectations.  And kudos to those who see that STEM is at the heart of the future of both.
Eduflack doesn’t seek to evangelize for S
TEM (at least not all of the time), but sometimes we need to sing loudly from the STEM hymnal.  Today’s students need STEM as part of their educational pathway, providing the knowledge and skills they need both in school and in career.  Today’s employees need STEM to stay relevant and adaptable to a changing economy.  And today’s employers need STEM to ensure they current and future workforce possess the skills to contribute to a thriving, growth-focused economy.  STEM education is at the heart of all of it.  We just need to ensure that community colleges and industry keep the blood pumping.

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