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Local leaders look to boost interest in science, technology

From Boeing to Microsoft to Amazon.com, it is no secret Washington state is a hotbed of technological innovation.

As Carolyn Landel sees it, Washington state’s education system is falling woefully short in providing its businesses proficient students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM fields.

The state has the fourth-highest concentration of technology-based industries of any state in the United States, but ranks 46th in participation of its science and engineering graduate degree programs, according to the Technology Alliance’s 2009 Washington State Innovation Policy Toolkit.

The Washington STEM Initiative, which began development in June 2008, aims to boost efficiency in these fields, from kindergarden to college, said Landel, the project’s director. The initiative has so far received funding from multiple philanthropies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates and the Paul G. Allen foundations.

“There’s a huge separation between those teachers who are STEM-phobic and those who are passionate about it,” said Judi Brown, dean of the college of mathematics, engineering, sciences and health at Olympic College.

Local education and business leaders gathered at the Olympic Educational Service District building in Bremerton Nov. 20 to discuss the initiative.

Landel said the initiative aims to provide the resources to help teachers inspire young children to be enthused about STEM-related fields, and keep them inspired until they join the workforce.

“They are not getting quite the level of proficiency that we would like them to reach,” she said. “We want to make sure our education links to post-secondary life.”

Brown said elementary school teachers focus predominantly on reading and other social studies related subjects at the expense of STEM fields. She said teachers would benefit from more in-class experience when earning their teaching certificates.

Roger Zabinski, commissioner-elect for the Port of Bremerton, said more real-world experience also would help with college students pursuing STEM-related degrees, such as through expanded internships with local businesses.

Maria Peña said an in-state source for educational grants would be particularly helpful for small rural colleges, such as Peninsula College, where she is the dean for student development.

“We could collaborate to serve small numbers, local numbers for us,” she said. “I can’t wait for the day when we get grants to do that. We can not compete nationally.”

She added that money for stipends for STEM-related school children could also boost interest at Peninsula College because of the high number of low-income children attending the school.

“We could feed the children while teaching them,” she said. “We could feed their brains while feeding their tummies.”

The initiative’s long-term goal is to become a force to drive policy makers on education decisions, as well as to provide data showing a linkage between improved STEM education and job growth across the state.

Landel said she would like to see the creation of a statewide STEM Center, as well as facilities to coordinate project around the state. There is no timetable for the building, though she said STEM plans to launch in the spring.

“It should be a physical location, but it needs a regional presence,” she said.

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