Teresa Barber: Our STEM system: Failure to launch

At 9:30 a.m. June 4, special guests rang the New York Stock Exchange opening bell signaling the market’s daily opening.

In 1956, a 10-year old launched the tradition as the first guest to ring the bell. Leonard Ross won a television quiz show answering questions about the stock market. On this more recent June morning, a team of NASA agency staff and commercial partners relayed the opening bell tradition forward.

NASA rang the opening bell, signaling a moment when space exploration and launches hold potential for tremendous economic growth accessible at an unprecedented level to U.S. industry, researchers, makers, and wide-eyed kids of all ages. Parallel opportunities are unfolding across industries with advances in tech, manufacturing, and robotics along with new discoveries and scientific progress.

We are crafting a common modern language to articulate those advances. It speaks to our booming demand for a pipeline of talent, explorers, and makers proficient in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills and critical thinking competencies.

American families, employers, media, and leaders have grown increasingly attuned to demands for STEM talent and skills. Innovative stewards in economic development are keying in on the reality that STEM-enabled industry can welcome systemic leaps toward prosperity. STEM makers and industries pump new ideas, patents, technology, and perspectives into economies and supply chains. They change the economic fabric of communities.

When I heard that NASA would ring the NYSE opening bell June 4, I felt a sort of validation. During the past decade, I’ve been an advocate and consultant for smart economic development and STEM in regions and civic systems. In 2013, I was selected for the NASA Social of the Mars Atmospheric Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) probe. I experienced MAVEN’s bone-shaking, heart-thumping launch on an Atlas V rocket from Kennedy Space Center.

I wanted to understand the underpinnings of the space launch industry, its role promoting research and innovation, and effects on surrounding economies and workforces. I was most curious about one question: How did the humans behind this massive effort to launch MAVEN to Mars get where they are?

During my visit to KSC, top engineers, experts, and scientists answered my questions:

“How did you know you wanted to do this?”

“How did you navigate into this career, and know what steps to take to get here?”

Each pointed to a parent or family friend working in the industry, able to provide information, mentorship, and help navigate the steps. The women I spoke with often acknowledged that they created their own image in their fields during times when scientists were only cartoonishly displayed as irrelevantly goofy middle-aged white men in starched lab coats.

Certainly today access to STEM careers is open for young students without parents or family friends in STEM industries, right?

We have STEM camps, robotics competitions, the Hour of Code, and celebrities reminding us that “science is rock ’n’ roll.” We have movements to increase engagement in STEM by young women and minorities. Those individual investments and programs are switches for “the lightbulb” of wonder to go off – for kids to explore careers, find mentors, and adopt and achieve real goals.

Rather than championing STEM, many of our leaders and officials still snicker nervously when speaking about community college. They default to stale terms such vocational tech or trade school. Such terms carry tremendous baggage. They communicating the false dichotomy of a bifurcated system of opportunity: either your child will earn a living using specialized skills, or your child will go to college. This has to stop.

Imagine that we are standing next to a young Leonard Ross. It’s our turn to ring that opening bell, and send him out into the world on a journey toward learning, earning, and growth.

But all we can muster are stale terms borrowed from the economic jargon of Leonard’s day: trade school, vocational tech.

Yes, industry needs certain skills. It makes logical sense to master market-demanded competencies. Leonard hears us, but he isn’t inspired.

It’s June 2015. Our leaders need to stop snickering and get serious. STEM must be championed beyond the single corporate investment and philanthropic program, and into systemic reforms across our districts and systems.

Teresa Barber specializes in strategic planning, and economic and workforce development at Thinkspot, a Tallahassee business, marketing  and economic analysis firm. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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