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Experts Forum Report: Idaho’s STEM Future


With technology on the rise across industries, Idaho must produce a large, well-educated STEM workforce — or risk getting left behind.

Recently, the Idaho Department of Labor predicted that as many as 36,000 STEM jobs would go unfilled over the next five years. How should the state deal with that challenge?

At IBR’s March 14 expert’s forum on Idaho’s STEM future, five panelists discussed a wide range of topics from gender gap challenges to recruitment and retention within their professions. They also discuss the need for changes in the classroom to integrate STEM across subjects and keep kids, especially girls, interested as they progress through their educations. Click here to download a pdf of the Experts Forum report.

Moderator: Sharon Fisher, IBR technology reporter

The Panel:

Melinda Davis, director of STEM education for the University of Idaho

Angela Hemingway, executive director of the Idaho STEM Action Center

Amy Lientz, director of stakeholder and education partnerships at Idaho National Laboratory

Jay Patel, developer, leader and entrepreneur heading operations and finance for Coding Dojo

(l-r) Moderator Sharon Fisher, Jay Patel, Angela Hemingway, Melinda Davis and Amy Lientz. Photo by Autumn Kersey.

Please give your overview of the state of the STEM field. You can address that question at any level, whether it’s internationally, nationally, or within Idaho.

Jay Patel:

Jay Patel, developer, leader and entrepreneur heading operations and finance for Coding Dojo. Photo by Pete Grady.

An overview of STEM, there’s a couple of things that I want to highlight with this question. The first thing is that STEM is pervasive across all industries — that’s something that we need to realize. It’s not just about the developer positions at Google, it’s about every position in every industry that can be enabled by technology. It’s how STEM really enables innovation in every industry. If someone in marketing knows, for example, database queries, like SQL, then they can be much more effective at their job using database queries to analyze data and pull insights that can really drive business decisions that can prove what they’re working on at their day to day. That’s incredibly important to realize.

The second thing is STEM training is all about building the future problem solvers. So, STEM training is all about becoming a better problem solver, and that’s not something that’s just relevant to a job in science, technology, engineering or math. That’s relevant to every industry and every position and that can help in every position.

The big thing to understand is that we have several barriers to STEM education. The first is, naturally, a gender gap. But there are deep, deep societal biases that we need to pay attention to. One of the big ones that I see all the time is this notion that if you don’t know math you can’t learn to code. That’s something that we need to get over and get past to understand that anyone can learn to code. Anyone can learn these skills. It’s not just about learning these skills to get a job and using those skills every minute of every day. It’s about learning those skills so that you can enable what you do every day already. That’s incredibly important for innovation across every industry, across every position.

Angela Hemingway:

Angela Hemingway, executive director of the Idaho STEM Action Center. Photo by Pete Grady.

I tend to focus on some of the labor data that comes out of Department of Labor and Bureau of Labor Statistics to help paint a picture, especially for legislatures, since the bulk of the funding for the STEM Action Center comes from state funding. Starting with what everyone knows — that Idaho is the fastest growing state in the nation — but other people don’t always know that we’re second in the nation in tech sector growth. We’re actually third in the nation in job growth, and we finally lead the nation in wage growth. Wages have been increasing consistently these past few years and in fact, letting people know that STEM jobs in Idaho pay exceptionally well. They’re paying well over $31 an hour; a non-STEM job, you’re going to make less than $15 an hour. So, when we’re talking about the economic prosperity that STEM jobs can bring to Idaho, it’s incredibly significant.

We’re anticipating about a 26 percent growth in STEM overall. We’re looking at nearly 100,000 STEM jobs in Idaho by 2024. These are huge numbers that help us paint pictures about the importance of STEM. Also looking to the past, last year Idaho missed out on over 6,300 STEM jobs that were unfilled. That represents a huge economic loss to individuals — it’s about $412 million assuming that those jobs are paying average wage at just over $31 an hour — and tax coffers, as we’re talking about taxes and what we’re going to spend our money on. We missed out on $22 million in tax revenue as well.

These are huge problems that we’ve got to figure out how to solve here in Idaho. To springboard off of what was said earlier, we also need to help change the narrative around STEM. STEM doesn’t mean a four-year degree. There are many programs and certificates and different routes that students can go, be it military, six-month, nine-month degrees, associate degrees, clear on up through the doctorate level. But really changing that narrative that STEM doesn’t mean a four-year degree. There are a lot of different pathways, so talking with students, parents, educators and career counselors that there are a variety of options for students to follow.

Melinda Davis:

Melinda Davis, director of STEM education for the University of Idaho. Photo by Pete Grady.

I’d like to talk a little bit about the education side of STEM and where we’re at with that. I really appreciate your comment that STEM isn’t about the disciplines, it’s about problem solving. I think we have hit the point in the education system where we’re realizing that. STEM education now is about teaching what’s commonly called the critical thinking skills, which is a pretty broad term, but teaching students to solve problems and to think through something themselves, and to apply the content to whatever they’re doing. That’s where we’re going with STEM education.

As far as the state of that education, I would say that our K-12 systems have come a long way. In the last decade, you can see a real shift — changes in our standards, new science and math standards in most states now, changes in how we assess students and what we’re looking for. There are changes in the actual way we deliver education through team teaching, learner driven approaches, project based learning.

We’ve really come a long way, and I think the public is very receptive of that and has come to realize the need for that. We did a study at U of I a few years ago just looking across Idaho, and overwhelmingly the public that we surveyed recognized the need for their children to have STEM programs and have access to those.

Perhaps where I think we might still be lagging is in higher education. It’s kind of behind in the rest of the education world in terms of doing those things. There’s still an awful lot of professors and colleges and classes that still stand up and lecture or do not give authentic experiences to the students. There’s still a mindset on “it should be content.” I think we have a ways to go in higher ed, but I’d say the education system has really come a long way in STEM in the K-12 system.

Amy Lientz:

Amy Lientz, director of stakeholder and education partnerships at Idaho National Laboratory. Photo by Pete Grady.

I’m going to bring a little bit of an industry perspective here. I would say that we have a lot of nervous anxiety amongst the industries in this state. I’ll give our own example. We have 4,800 employees, and a lot of those employees do have some kind of STEM background. We currently have 350 openings. We anticipate in Eastern Idaho, related to nuclear energy, other energy and cybersecurity, an incredible deficit in terms of the needs that we have. Just in the tea leaves here, we’ll see about 350 new opportunities again next year, and it’ll keep going like that for the next five years. It doesn’t help us that we have a retiree population that’s occurring right now as well.

So, what are we doing about this? I’d say from an industry perspective, we have to treat this as investment, just as every industry probably should. Just as you would with a leaking roof or a new building, we have to be deeply engaged and involved in helping solve the problem down to the school in a small little rural town, to actually connecting with universities around the world to help fill these positions. We do take this seriously in terms of an investment, and we have all kinds of things that we’re working on that you’re going to hear about today.

Fortunately, I don’t feel alone with our industry. I feel like other industries are paying great attention to this because there’s such a desperate need to fill these positions. Even the 3,000 construction workers that have to be brought onboard to build the small modular reactor in the next five years will have to have some component of a technology understanding. It’s an important topic and I think we have a long ways to go, but I think I’m seeing little bits of progress here and there that make me feel a little bit better and help me sleep at night.

When technology is a part of nearly every field going forward, what advantage is there to segregating STEM as this kind of separate thing rather than emphasizing the use of technology in every field? For example, instead of telling people they need math to be able to code, why aren’t we talking to artists and psychologists and encouraging them to get into fields like customer experience and user interface design?

Angela Hemingway:

I would say that perhaps that’s a misconception. We actually recognize that technology is going to be required in about 90 percent of the jobs in the future. That’s why we feel it’s critically important to give all teachers the opportunity to get training and resources in a variety of different types of technology, be it robots or drones, or advanced manufacturing. That’s really the pressure point that we’re coming from. We definitely do not segregate, and we recognize that professionals don’t sit down and do math for 45 minutes, then stand up go to a different room and go do science for 45 minutes like we are training the high school students to do. We have to break that mold. We have to do that through educating the teachers, showing them what integrated STEM looks like, helping them understand what STEM professionals actually do. I think those are absolutely critical components.

A quick story, the Idaho Educational Technology teacher of the year is actually a music teacher. She came to us three years ago and said, “I teach music, I’m just a music teacher but, I want to enter your robotics program” called Bot Ball. Three years later, her students are programming robots. They’ll do the hokey-pokey, they’ll put their claw in, put the claw out. I think that is the beauty of the potential of STEM education done correctly. It truly is an integrated approach.

Melinda Davis:

I agree fully with Angela about the integration; it’s absolutely necessary. There still are some advantages, however, to taking some components of STEM and treating them separately. That has to do with getting the content knowledge and that fundamental understanding. Sometimes that requires that you look at it solely, like genetics. You really have to have some fundamental understanding of genes and how they work. Sometimes that is better learned by treating it separately than moving in the integration. There can be advantages.

I think also with technology, before you can move into how do you use it and apply it, sometimes there’s a need to have lessons in how does that piece of technology work? What are the mechanics of it? How do I use it? How do I turn it on? Some of those things you can teach separately.

I do think we ultimately have to be teaching it in that integrated fashion. At times, there is some merit to teaching the individual components and content knowledge.

Amy Lientz:

I agree with Melinda. We have to still have that material scientist or that electrical engineer or I could go on and on with those specific examples of specialized expertise.

However, when you look at that broad number of jobs that we are hiring, I think the people that do maybe apply for a communications position for instance will rise to the top of the pile as we’re looking at those resumes if they have some science background, if they can understand science, understand engineering and talk about it, and specifically technology. It does serve well with many different careers if we try to encourage students to take some classes in computer science, take some classes in web design so that they have that additional experience to add to their background and their resume.

The other thing that I find is very helpful for industry is working with a community college. You’re not going to get necessarily all the things that you think you’re going to get out of a college education or even a certificate, but then once you get there into a job, then working possibly with that community college to help you enhance your experience through some other kinds of classes for recertification. That is very helpful to help broaden that student’s experience after they get their job and at least allowing them to continue their education without necessarily having to dive into getting another degree or a master’s education program.

Jay Patel:

I agree with what Melinda said that we need to teach these concepts foundationally in an isolated fashion. But, growing from there, we need to make sure that everyone has exposure to these concepts so that they can enable their day to day. I love what Angela mentioned about training the teachers and how the music teacher is now teaching these STEM concepts.

One thing we’ve seen time and time again is that STEM has a highly creative component that not everyone recognizes.

With issues such as Facebook privacy concerns as well as future developments in areas like robotics and artificial intelligence, how should STEM education incorporate concepts such as ethics?

Melinda Davis:

I think that’s a pretty straight forward one, which is I think in all fields, not just STEM, those ethical or other considerations beyond just the technical, need to be actually incorporated in the curriculum. If you’re teaching bio genetics and you’re getting a degree in genetic engineering, there ought to be a course in what is ethical in genetic engineering. There’s no reason in all fields that we aren’t just incorporating that in the curriculum.

Angela Hemingway:

I would just say with the Facebook and social media platforms, that many school servers actually block those platforms, which makes it incredibly challenging as a teacher to teach ethics and utilization of some of these social media platforms when we can’t even access them at school. At what point do we need to also ensure that parents and communities are aware of these issues as well? That’s another piece that we need to solve because we can’t always access some of this information at school itself.

Amy Lientz:

I think the question is really timely. I was just at a meeting at the National Academy of Sciences and this was their theme. It not only talked about the role of data and information coming through from social media platforms, but it talked a lot about artificial intelligence and the complications with artificial intelligence.

I will say that one of themes is don’t believe everything that you see. Teaching those skills to ask questions, to go to the source and try to make sure that that information is legitimate. You need to do that as a scientist or as an engineer, or even just as a general practitioner of getting that information. It was fascinating to hear the challenges with artificial intelligence that there is.

You have to question that data that’s coming back to you. I think there is a new STEM job opportunity that they’re calling the algorithm auditor, which I think is a really good idea. We look at that at INL and we’re looking at that seriously. We actually have a research integrity office, and we really take a look at this and look at it in all of our practices. Our higher education institutions are asking us to help them with their integrity office as well.

Melinda Davis:

I love what you said about looking at the information, and this is years ago, when my son was in junior high, they were beginning to use internet to look things up. The difficulty the teacher said she had getting through to students that Wikipedia wasn’t a primary source, and they haven’t been taught to question that, so I appreciate you brining that up.

Jay Patel:

I think there are a lot of eyes on privacy, and that’s great that we’re having this discussion. The piece that worries me significantly is bullying. My nephew is in sixth grade, and everyone has iPads and it’s pretty cool. They have these apps that they use, and they can interact with their teachers even when they’re at home and interact with each other. But there are unintended consequences. Those unintended consequences are they have a chat room with all of their students with no teachers, that they’ve created as kids. As part of that, my nephew had posted too many memes on this chat room and got kicked out by the person who created the chat room. He was the only person who was not part of this chat, and it really hurt him.

There are these situations that we don’t really know how to deal with right now. We do a great job in schools talking about bullying in person. But, there’s this whole new realm now of this cyber bullying that’s happening that we need to start paying attention to and just educating our kids on, in what is appropriate and what’s not.

There’s been a lot of talk about how educational institutions need to be providing the technology instruction that people need. What role should business and industry be playing in helping train and development employees they need?

Amy Lientz:

As I mentioned earlier, this is a critical part of what we do, and it’s important that we do it right. I think it really starts with making sure we understand so we can articulate it to the education community what we need. Making sure that we not only know what we need right now, and what are the gaps that we’re finding with the people that are coming in on their resumes, but also understanding what that is two years from now, five years from now.

Once we have that inventory of what it is that we need, then it’s on us to maybe make sure that we help articulate that to our education institutions. We’ve done that, we’re doing that at Idaho National Laboratory, but we’re not just talking about what we need, we’re diving in, we’re providing grants, we’re providing hands-on help to develop that curriculum.

University of Idaho has just launched a new cyber program, and Melinda might be able to talk about that a little more, but it’s connecting with industry in a profound way. Also, this goes to programs that we’re seeing at the other institutions as well.

It really has to be deeply engrained, and then we have to take folks like Jennifer Jackson, who has worked for me as our STEM Program Development Director, to get those ideas into the schools and help excite and inspire.

Jay Patel:

Amy, the feedback loop that you mentioned is critical, having that feedback loop between businesses and educational institutions. At Coding Dojo, that’s what we’re built on. We’re built on a constant feedback from companies in what’s worked and what hasn’t. That feedback has allowed us to be very nimble and adapt our program quickly to suit those needs.

I think at a deeper level, businesses thrive when employees thrive. Employees thrive when they’re growing. We’ve seen this movement towards learning and development budgets. We’ve seen a lot of support from states in providing some of that funding as well. That’s something that’s critical beyond education. When you’re a professional working at a company, if you have the ability to learn as they’re giving you a learning development budget that’ll help you grow, which then helps the business group and that increases retention too. There’s a feedback loop that’s definitely extremely important for a business to provide to educational institutions. There’s also that piece of investing in employees while they’re working to make sure they’re growing, and they have education learning development opportunities while they’re in the job itself.

Angela Hemingway:

I would just say INL’s long-term vision has been really supportive of the work that we do as well. I think Amy mentioned University of Idaho’s cyber program — students aren’t just going to magically show up there once they get to the doors of college. We’ve just started a new program with the support of INL called Cyber Start, and it’s this really cool, online gaming environment where high school girls go in first, and they’re the ones that unlock the challenges for the rest of their classmates. It’s a great opportunity for high school girls to kind of be able to get involved and beyond that to be able to jump in, so that we’re creating a kind of pathways for students that choose to pursue this at a college level.

Industry, at least from our perspective, we’ve formed some really great partnerships with our state funding that we received. We have a grant called a public-private partnership where we have the opportunity for industry to lead out on a program or project, and we can provide supporting funds to help enhance and leverage the funding from industry.

Melinda Davis:

I think everyone said a lot of the things that industry can do already, and Amy said it very well. My number one thing I had written down originally was “tell us what you need,” and INL is a great example of that and Amy nailed it when she said that. I think once you have those relationships between education and industry beyond just the what you need in terms of skills and jobs, you can get deeper kinds of questions. The things we hear from the industry partners are valuable. They’re telling us what they’re hearing, what they went through, what girls say. Females that come into an engineering degree, what are the differences? They can get down into the details of the things we need to understand.

The outreach, those activities you talked about, are really critical. I think one thing that we forget is that there needs to be awareness of the different jobs that are out there. It’s great that you tell educators what you need, but the parents, students, community members and the teachers don’t always know all these new and changing jobs. Our students spend a great deal of time in the classroom, and if their teacher doesn’t know those jobs exist, then they’re not going to hear about them. That’s one way they can really engage is by showing up, explaining the jobs, providing job shadowing, providing opportunities for people at the communities at large to see what these careers are.

Let’s talk for a minute about the gender gap in STEM fields. Men still hold the vast majority of the jobs and there’s been some discussion about the ‘bro culture’ that makes it unwelcome to women. What sort of positive trends are there for women in the industry?

Jay Patel:

We have seen positive trends, especially in our programs, typically in Silicon Valley, the percentage for companies hovers around 10 percent, and that’s pretty dismal. We’ve seen in our programs, rising from 20 percent up from there. The thing that I want to highlight here is there’s no silver bullet. There’s no silver bullet solution, it really takes a multi-pronged approach at all levels of education. From zero through life, and across parents, schools, businesses, and the state to solve this problem. It’s many small steps that we need for the eventual outcome.

Part of that is really some of the deeper-rooted issues like some of the things that create this mindset that hey, this job is not something that I’m cut out for or that I have the opportunity for. We need to create those opportunities at all levels. We’re trying to create that opportunity at the adult education, post-secondary education level, so that someone who didn’t previously have the opportunity can break into the industry. We need to create those opportunities to break into the industry at all levels, not just post-secondary education but undergraduate, high school, all the way down to K through 12.

If women and girls don’t want to get into STEM, what’s the problem? Isn’t STEM a meritocracy and the best people rise to the top?

Angela Hemingway:

Just a few facts, I think many of you know that women are getting college degrees in record numbers. Anywhere from 52 to 57 percent of the bachelor’s degrees are earned by women. However, they still do only represent 24 percent of the STEM workforce. I think step one was to recognize we have a problem. Gender wage gap continues to be a pretty significant issue as well. If you choose a non-STEM job, women are going to face about a 21 percent lower wage than a man doing the same job. In STEM it’s 12 percent; in engineering and computer science it’s as low as 7 percent. We’re really closing those wage gaps as we have women start to move into more of these fields.

If you haven’t read the paper, it came out just last year and it’s called ‘Closing the STEM gap’ it was actually commissioned by Microsoft, they have some phenomenal data in there of studies they did with young women as well as with college women. Some of the biggest factors that women list is who inspires them to go into STEM? It’s often a combination of especially their mom — dads have a lower effect, I think it’s still important, my dad is the one that inspired me — but moms and their teacher. Teacher was regardless of gender.

The goal isn’t to get young men to leave the profession. We need them going in at the same rate if not more, because there’s so many new jobs being developed, but also encouraging young women or at least letting them know that these are opportunities. One thing that we’re doing with educators is that we’re launching a teacher externship program. Almost 95 percent of our educators here in Idaho have never worked in private industry. Most of us, we came out at 22 or 23, we knew we wanted to teach, that was our career pathway. So it’s difficult for me to know the jobs that are available, the jobs that are becoming available unless I have some work experience. We’re trying to change the narrative so that teachers can go get some on-site work experience and be paid as professionals for their time. We’re going to be learning from this pilot program about how teachers are going to integrate what they’ve learned by getting some true work experience in industry to be able to bring back to the classroom.

We have another program with Big Brothers Big Sisters. We’re looking for STEM bigs. If you’ve always wanted to be a STEM big and have a group of middle school girls who will just adore you and you can watch them thrive, that is just another program that we’ve invested in with Micron Foundation that we think is just critically important so that young women can see these role models and be able to emulate those.

Then I think kind of the last thing that I just wanted to mention, is that really helping young women understand that STEM jobs are incredibly creative and that they are changing the world for good. Most women see that when they choose health care or biological sciences, but helping them understand that mathematicians and engineers and computer scientists really do make an impact and can be creative in their jobs. That comes from them engaging with individuals in that profession.

Melinda Davis:

I think there are positive trends in what we’re doing to try to address the gender gap. As Angela said, there’s an awareness, we need more of it, but it’s growing, there is an awareness. You’re seeing more and more programs aimed at younger girls, and we know where we lose them. We know that they start out in elementary school loving science and math, then they lose in interest by the time they’re in junior high often. We see more and more programs aimed at the younger girls to keep them engaged. Then all the way up to the university level, we’re seeing programs.

I mentioned that the College of Engineering has actually started an initiative that is intended to increase recruitment and retention of females in engineering programs. As you said, it’s multi-pronged. So College of Engineering is doing things like establishing their mentoring network, trying to change the culture, trying to do things that change the culture. Angela, you mentioned role models, hiring more female faculty that can serve as role models and mentor these young girls that come into the program.

There is a lot of positive I’d say going on to try to address the gap. We still see that the big gap is in the physical sciences and engineering, and a lot of that is attributed to what Angela brought up, that there are a lot of studies that girls like to be contributing to something, a societal problem, solving something. They don’t necessarily see that connection when they see an engineering job. There are efforts underway by a number of places now to change the way they just write the job descriptions. They can see that there’s some teamwork involved and it’s not just the bottom dollar. There are a lot of positive trends.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a meritocracy, not yet. There’s a tremendous amount of implicit bias that still occurs especially when children are young. There are studies that have actually shown that girls receive lower grades in math for the same performance as boys. When you take away the gender, the name of the child, they get equivalent scores. When they have their name and the teacher knows the gender, they absolutely unconsciously grade harder and give girls lower scores in math. So, these kinds of things are still occurring, and they have to be addressed, and I think the fact that there’s research bringing that to light an unconscious bias and inclusion training going on now is a positive trend.

Amy Lientz:

It goes to making sure we’re really careful about our language and how we inspire young women to look at these careers. I’ll give the example of a program that was started with industries in Eastern Idaho called “Your Future in Technology,” where probably about 10 of us industries that really need to hire folks in STEM fields at all levels went out to the schools. This was an after-school program with parents and teachers and kids in rural towns to really provide excitement around these careers in a technology-based field. The very first event, a gentleman got up and said “Wow if you become an engineering technician, you’re going to make $80,000 and you’re going to be able to buy that new pickup truck cause it’s really awesome,” and it instantly was not exactly the most exciting thing to say to some of the girls in the audience. We did a little coaching and said maybe we can work on this a little bit more. Let’s work on our messaging a bit. That really changed at least how we talked about engineering. We made sure we brought role models, other gals that were engineering technicians or energy technicians. Some people were very excited about that, but you really want to be as inclusive as possible as you’re doing these things.

We also had an example where we went up to the Idaho Youth Challenge Academy at Pierce to talk about engineering. If you haven’t been there, it’s an incredible program. It’s in the middle of nowhere purposely, and it’s working with challenged students in a program that is a high school. We were up there teaching folks about engineering and the girls automatically came together as a group. They had the option to work with the boys as a team, but they all chose to work as a team. We really worked hard to make this a team project, and that’s because a lot of times the girls really thrive on this team environment in which they can design something together and create something together. They loved it, when they walked out of there they were like, “This engineering stuff is very cool.” They could see themselves in those potential careers in the future.

What is it that STEM education can do to promote the sort of collaboration, communication and other soft skills that technology professionals need?

Angela Hemingway:

The new science standards are very project-based. Giving students the opportunity to do projects, to form these groups that Amy was talking about, and to solve issues in their local communities, that really is kind of the angle that we’re taking. We’ll really be rolling out with educators these new science standards, and they’re all wrapped around project-based learning. Then allowing those students the opportunity once the project is over, you’re not just putting it in a binder and turning in an essay. You’re actually presenting it in a fashion to local industry, to the school board, making sure that you have a way to let students know that they’re being listened to, that they can practice those variety of communication skills that we know that they need.

I think we’re really headed in a good direction. We still have a lot of work to get there. I would say lastly, we need to make sure, and it’s been mentioned a number of times, that we’re not just focusing on the classroom. Students only spend 20 percent of their time in a year in a traditional classroom. That means 80 percent of their time is spent outside doing other activities, interacting with peers, with informal educators at local libraries and after school camps, as well as with their parents. Making sure that we have a spectrum and a more broad approach than just teachers, which is what we do through our activities at the center.

Melinda Davis:

I think Angela hit it right there with project-based learning. That is really one of our key approaches to bringing these soft skills into it. So, students as you said, in a project they actually go out and interface with the community to understand the problem before they tackle it. They present their findings. They’re learning a lot of these other skills along the way. I think this is probably the thing when we interface with industry and say, what do you need? We hear the most is the students have some knowledge, but they don’t have the soft skills, or they can’t communicate, or they don’t know how to collaborate because we haven’t taught them that. We know it’s still a problem because we’re still hearing it. I heard it just last week from some manufacturers in Lewiston. We know it’s still a problem, they’re still saying we need to teach these, but I think we’re headed that way, as you said Angela with the project-based learning. I think at the college level, we’re starting to realize we have to incorporate those things as well so when you come in and do an engineering degree or a genetics degree, whatever it might be, that we give students more opportunities. We give freshmen the opportunity to present a poster or a presentation, we provide networking opportunities for our students. We give them chances to do it where they may mess up a little, but it’s a safe environment to practice those skills, and I think that’s something that we can and are starting to do more of.

There’s been some talk that education is going to become more skills-based and less credentials-based. What are the advantages and disadvantages to the skills-based approach for STEM?

Melinda Davis:

The panel of Experts Forum: Idaho’s STEM Future discuss STEM education. Photo by Pete Grady.

I actually don’t like the term skills-based, I prefer competencies because skills sounds kind of more narrow. I know how to run that machine is a skill, but do you have the competency to know what’s not working if you get the wrong result off of it? I don’t necessarily use that term.

I think there are some advantages to skills-based, and one of those would be that in entry-level jobs. We need to be able to demonstrate you have those skills to get into the entry-level job. Can you run this piece of machinery or equipment? Those are skills they’re looking for. There is an advantage to getting students into the workplace faster into these entry-level jobs. Skills-based assessment can be more equitable, often it’s not as judgmental, it’s less objective. However, the disadvantage is that you aren’t looking at those underlying competencies. Just because I can run that machine, doesn’t mean I will know what to do when it breaks down. It doesn’t mean that I can solve a problem or tell that my product is not what you really wanted when I come to work.

Amy Lientz:

I agree with a lot of things Melinda said, but those foundational skills are very important. You can get specific skills, and I think that’s good for a short time. But how many of us are doing what we’re doing today that we were doing right out of school? Probably not very many of us because times are changing, technology is changing, needs are changing all the time. You really can’t get away from making sure you have some of those foundational skills to give you the ability to adapt and to evolve and to learn, and the critical thinking is so important in how we grow in our own careers.

I will say the community colleges play such an important role here because they’re able to get into the classrooms in our high schools, for instance, and really look at some of the skill-based opportunities, then be able to translate that to community college and roadmap it. Then also connecting it back to a university, so if they want to go further on and grow, those opportunities do exist.

Jay Patel:

Ultimately as a business, I would look to credentials to prove that an individual has the competency, and I think at the fundamental level, the credentials can provide that baseline proof. It can really help the individual to understand competencies at every level. I love what you said about the deeper competencies, that deeper skill set that’s going to last you throughout your career. I think what’s needed next, and what we’re seeing, is something like these apprenticeship programs where we’re really bridging education and the workforce and really making sure that individuals have that opportunity while they’re going through school to actually get raw skills by learning by doing. By actually working in a company and being trained on the job, in a controlled capacity, in a capacity where they have the support from the business as well.

On the collaboration question, I really wanted to highlight everyone had mentioned project-based learning, and that’s critical. I wanted to share a little bit about our experience going through and starting off with project-based learning and this collaborative environment. We started off with that to train these soft skills. But the feedback that we received from companies was that individuals still lacked certain soft skills. One example that was given which really stuck with us, was when talking about the work they did as a team, individuals would say I rather than we. These are small elements that add up to a larger gap in these soft skills. What we started doing is we started having those career services courses and having a deliberate approach when we’re administering this project-based learning and these collaborative environments and the presentations, also training the pieces that train the soft skills. We’re talking about say we instead of I, and little things that that really add up and train those soft skills. Also, talking about how to present yourself and how to approach an interview and things like that that really benefit the student far into their career.

Working in STEM fields pays better than teaching. What does STEM need to be able to do to attract the types and the numbers of teachers it needs?

Angela Hemingway:

I think from experience, teachers may not always see ourselves as a profession that we encourage students to go into. Having spent many years in a classroom, the first 10 years that I was teaching, hundreds of students came through the door. I would say, “You’d be a great engineer, you’d be a great computer scientist, you could be a pharmacist or a nurse,” but I never said “You could be a teacher.” I feel those first 10 years I did a disservice to my students. I’m working to make up for it by trying to write a book that a high school teacher could hand to a student and be able to say, “This is what I love about my job.”

Parents want their students to have jobs shadow opportunities. Well, I see 208 of them every single day that come through my classroom. There was a group of students that I would see here and there, and I would ask, “have you considered teaching? I really need a peer tutor.”

Over the four years that I really went after those students and said, “You could be a good teacher,” 12 of the students went into teaching, and 10 of those are still teaching here in Idaho.

Melinda Davis:

I feel like we should give a caveat that this is my opinion and only my opinion, and not that of the university. I personally think our biggest problem is inequity of pay and treating teachers as professionals. Teachers are often discounted, their opinion, they’re not invited to the table to give their opinion. They’re thought of as less than important, and I’m going to give you a personal example that I’m ashamed of. There was a time in my career as a scientist that I thought, yeah, education is kind of what you do if you don’t like science and math. That’s not true. Now that I work with educators, I see how tough their job is, how much they do, they go in, they learn science and math. I see how committed they are.

We still have that stigma attached to teachers, and we have it in Idaho I think, horribly. Inequity of pay has got to be addressed. We’ve got to recognize the importance. These teachers are a huge influence on where our children are going to end up in their lives. Give them professional development opportunities. Give them chances to get higher degrees, masters and doctorates in their chosen field of education.

Amy Lientz:

We definitely see the value of the teacher, and that’s where we do put a lot of our grant dollars and a lot of our support is with the teachers in the schools. They are the connector to the student and to the other programs. I wish we had a lot more money because I think we could impact and have more influence than we do. We also have a teaming teachers program where science teachers from a variety of different schools help us, and help us get into the classrooms. We’re refreshing that, and we hope to have even more teachers. I love the partnership that we’re having with the STEM Action Center and working with the teachers themselves. We want to do our part to really help wherever we can, the teachers.

When we go out into rural Idaho, I think that’s where we see such a need. We have doubled down essentially, in our help to the rural parts of the state. It’s not as easy to get to us at Idaho National Laboratory if you live in Malad or some of the other small towns. We are doing our part to get out to them and also to provide the grants to the rural towns.

I will say that because we have a group of retirees, many of them want to teach when they’re done working, maybe at the Idaho National Laboratory. I hear that from other retirees in other places, that they see this as an opportunity to give back and they want to share their knowledge. We also interact with a lot of veterans, and we see their interest in giving back and hopefully maybe that’s a population where we can attract and share the opportunity to be a teacher.

Jay Patel:

I agree with everything that’s been said. The big misconception we need to get past is teachers can’t practice, also all practitioners can teach. Those are two misconceptions that I think we can get past. Our experience, what we found, we had a very tough time hiring instructors for our programs. It was a problem with our approach. We were approaching practitioners with 10 years of experience and expecting that from day one they could teach. In hindsight it’s obvious. We shifted our approach to get phenomenal teachers and teach them how to code because teaching is a deep skill set that is very unique. That’s something that I think we all need to recognize. A great example is our instructor here in Boise, she is a phenomenal teacher first, and we taught her how to code. That’s why she’s so effective because teaching is its own skill set.

Angela Hemingway:

I would just note that yesterday the legislature did support raising starting teacher salary to $40,000. When I took my first job in 2000 with a master’s degree, they paid me $28,000. They’ve certainly come a long ways as far as recruiting teachers in, and we do, as was mentioned, spend a significant amount of our budget, about $1.3 million dollars this year, training teachers.

It was also Amy that mentioned, we need support in our classroom. When students came to me and said, “Hemingway, we want to build and code a robot,” I am the microbiologist. I know genetic code really well, but when it came to actually guiding them on how to build a robot and the engineering behind that, I really struggled. There’s many teachers, especially in rural communities, that simply tell their kids “No, I can’t help you. I don’t know how to do that.” How do we break down those barriers so that teachers can open their doors, they know who to reach out to, who is my local engineer, or some support I can get online? We have an online mentorship platform that connects mentors from anywhere that have been background checked in with classrooms. There’s really opportunities out there to support us educators. As you said, we’re trained to teach first, that means some of these areas and research projects the students are trying to do are beyond the content knowledge that we have. So, supporting us in the classroom would be incredibly helpful.

What are some things that other states and countries are doing in STEM education? What is Idaho’s biggest barrier?

Jay Patel:

What we see is a lot of the education doesn’t have to happen via the web. A lot of the education can happen in person with whiteboards, with collaborative environment, and live activities, live experiments, building things in person as a team. There are resources that can be downloaded and then used as well. For us, we’re seeing more and more, even in our program, our learning platform is on the web, but most of our education is done in person via whiteboard. We have students writing code on the whiteboards because it trains them to think like a computer and it’s more effective. It really does not have to rely on an internet connection. There are tons of activities that we can embrace.

Angela Hemingway:

Idaho actually has schools that are exceptionally well connected. We’ve been testing all of our students online for statewide assessment since 2005. It’s when children leave the classroom that I think there are struggles and challenges. We’re working with libraries; sometimes the library is where communities go when they need local connection.

Another thing, too, communities have really coalesced around our family STEM event grants. That provides funding to a community to be able to host a STEM event where they can bring in local STEM professionals. Some of them bring in grocers, the local beekeeper, the local bank, there’s a lot of different opportunities. By bringing those professionals together, bringing communities and families there, we see a 36 percent increase in student awareness of STEM careers in their own backyard.

Again, doing some unplugged activities, there’s plenty of them, but schools and libraries are surprisingly well connected.

Melinda Davis:

I would say some of the best practices and successes that we’ve seen in communities where they have issues such as broadband and they’re rural and isolated, is where you have community buy-in. Then you get as you said coalescing around activities. You have the nonprofit community organization, you have the informal STEM organizations like the library, you have the businesses involved. They actually all come together with the goal to provide STEM learning opportunities to the students and their community. That’s probably the no. 1 approach that seems to be working in these communities that may be disadvantaged in other ways, it’s partnerships.


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