Stemming

A rigorous curriculum in science, technology, engineering and math proves crucial for 21st-century jobs and quality of life

By GEOFF CANTRELL

STEM is the acronym that guides modern life. It stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the fields of study for mainstream careers of the 21st century. STEM students are tomorrow’s nurses, software designers, agricultural managers and manufacturing technicians. And more.

The innovations and services related to STEM education touch the whole of society and improve the quality of life. Because of its science, computer science, engineering, technology and math curriculum, Western Carolina University is the largest (and, in some fields, the only) educational institution in Western North Carolina preparing students to meet the growing regional workforce demands in health care, high-tech manufacturing and natural products development. And the demand is increasing for programs providing the latest in technology and techniques, which require cutting-edge instructional materials, equipment and updated facilities.

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WCU graduates are the talent pool that local businesses and industry will draw upon for employment needs (facing page). Rachel Shinskie, a senior and president of the WCU Women in Engineering Club, gets hands-on experience in an electronic engineering class.

“WCU graduates in STEM and health science programs have a real opportunity to help transform the region, the state and the world,” said Richard Starnes ’92 MA ’94, dean of WCU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “These students will find new solutions to the problems we all face. They will create new knowledge, new ideas and new technology. They will apply the latest in health care knowledge to heal and improve quality of life. Together, they have the opportunity to transform our region’s economy. And they will do all this grounded by deep understanding of society, culture and their world, knowledge they gained in our core curriculum and in their interactions with their fellow students and our faculty. Their opportunities are limitless and their futures are bright indeed.”

Recruitment and retention of students and adequately providing STEM education are challenges faced by universities across the state and nation. A referendum will be held in March for the Connect NC bonds, a $2 billion package that would benefit higher education, including replacement of WCU’s Natural Sciences Building. Construction of a new facility would allow increased capacity in courses such as chemistry and biology that are foundational to STEM degrees. The Natural Sciences Building is out-of-date, deteriorating and in constant need of repair.

STEM education already plays an evolving and vital role in the economic development of WNC, said Todd Douglas, workforce development director with Southwestern Commission, the council of governments for Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. “While local governments and communities seek to lure new businesses to the region by means of economic development incentive packages, they will ultimately be questioned about the viability of the region’s workforce,” Douglas said. “Employers want to know that there will be an available local workforce that can support the growth and output of their businesses.”

Every math, science, engineering and technology course offered at WCU represents significant potential for the region and, in turn, income growth for the state, he said. That growth is largely dependent on the ability to meet workforce needs. To that end, WCU has joined with the Southwestern Workforce Development board, N.C. Department of Commerce’s Division of Workforce Solutions, regional community colleges and regional economic developers in a partnership to focus attention on the workforce needs of employers.

Thanks to educational opportunities at WCU, “businesses will have the sustainable supply of talent that they require while students get an introduction to available career options that they might never have considered,” said Douglas. “STEM is tied to local business needs and provides local students, who are future employees, the skills to work in good paying careers. Young adults in rural Western North Carolina will be afforded an opportunity to remain in their local communities due to the availability of good paying jobs.”

COMPETING AT HOME AND ABROAD

According to the U. S. Department of Commerce, STEM-related occupations are growing at 17 percent annually, while others are growing at less than 10 percent. While there is a growing need to meet regional workforce demands in health care, high-tech manufacturing and agriculture, the context for the future is meeting hiring needs in a global marketplace.

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Construction, architecture and building trades rely upon qualified professionals with backgrounds in STEM. At a job site, William Quigley, a junior and an engineering management student, reviews blueprints.

“The United States economy is short of talent for many jobs in the advanced manufacturing sector,” Douglas said. “There are interest gaps and skill gaps that need to be addressed in order for many of the vacant positions to be filled. To fill these gaps in the future, businesses are looking to STEM education and STEM pathways to provide the sustainable talent they require. As America makes strides in STEM education, there is no doubt about the value of STEM on a worldwide economic scale.”

The recent North Carolina Commission on Workforce Development report “Preparing North Carolina’s Workforce and Businesses for the Global Economy” cited that at least 42 percent of new jobs being created in the state will require some post-secondary education. An even higher share of new, higher-wage jobs will require STEM-related skills. In particular, STEM jobs will constitute an increasing share of higher and medium-wage jobs, the report found, which will create significant barriers to employment for unprepared young adults and existing workers.

“The continued growth of engineering and manufacturing in the United States is dependent on fundamental knowledge and understanding of STEM subjects,” said Jeffrey Ray, professor and dean in WCU’s Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology. “Advanced manufacturing jobs and technological changes in the workplace require more knowledge in STEM areas than ever before in our history.”

According to the U. S. Labor Department, eight of the 10 largest STEM occupations in the country are related to computers and information technology, including computer support specialists, applications software developers and computer system analysts.

“We look at job candidates right out of college,” said Bill Hathaway ’85, CEO of Noregon, a commercial vehicle data company headquartered in Greensboro that specializes in innovative product and software development for the transportation industry for vehicle diagnostics and repair. “Recruiting has changed over the years. We now look for ‘digital natives’ who have a degree, good communication skills and project management capabilities. They bring talent, a solid STEM educational foundation, and we’ll team with them, show them how the business works and guide them through gaining the practical experience in the workplace. We build on that individual’s education and skills in computer science and tech, which are so important, through internships or as new hires.”

For many occupations, employers view a STEM degree as a progressive part of learning and an essential building block on a resume.

Micki Turner is the human resource manager with GE Aviation, a world-leading provider of jet and turboprop engines, components and integrated systems for commercial, military, business and general aviation aircraft. “STEM education is critical for us at GE Aviation as we have large numbers of jobs in engineering and manufacturing technicians,” she said. The Asheville site manufactures rotating parts and in 2014 opened a new 125,000-square-foot facility to produce engine components made of advanced ceramic matrix composite materials. Turner readily advocates for advancement and collaboration for local STEM educational opportunities. She pointed out that Buncombe County Schools opened the Martin Nesbitt Discovery Academy, a STEM high school, in 2014. “It is doing great things to produce future talent pipelines,” she said. “We love that.”

GE Aviation held an “Engineering Day” last October to promote careers in that field. The purpose was to expose high school freshmen and younger students to the world of engineering and advanced manufacturing. The day’s activities included learning how an autoclave works, experiments designing and building kites and bridges. “The day was a collaboration between GE Aviation, WCU, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County,” Turner said. “Students gave very positive feedback and we plan to do more of this in 2016.”

ESTABLISHING A STEM LIVING-LEARNING COMMUNITY

Also last October, President Obama announced a renewed commitment to inspire and prepare more youth – especially those from historically underrepresented groups – to excel in the STEM fields through the “Educate to Innovate” campaign. That included a White House committee charged with finding ways America can increase and sustain public and youth engagement to improve the STEM experience for undergraduate students. In November, it was announced that first-generation STEM students at WCU will get that boost through a living-learning community, with an atmosphere where they are surrounded by peers, guided by mentors and encouraged at every turn.

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Teaching with current technology and equipment is important for health care fields. Shawn Collins, director of WCU’s nurse anesthesia program (standing), explains techniques with second-year student Stefan Swecker, seated. WCU has more than 400 undergraduate and nearly 150 graduate nursing students.

WCU, along with the University of Central Florida and Florida Atlantic University, received funding from the National Science Foundation to support STEM students from underserved communities through a $1.8 million grant that will provide scholarships and create the innovative living-learning community on campus. First-year STEM students will live in the same residence hall, take core disciplinary classes together, work with mentors and engage in a 12-week research apprenticeship with faculty.

“Nearly 30 percent of WCU’s students are the first in their families to go to college. They have different needs than students who come from households where a family member has paved the way for them and provided the support they need to be successful,” said Bill Kwochka, associate professor of chemistry and director of WCU’s STEM living-learning community. “Our goal is to provide the foundation that addresses those needs.”

This research-focused model is based on success in the Learning Environment and Academic Research Network, or LEARN, established by the University of Central Florida in 2011, an effort led by UCF Director of Undergraduate Research Kim Schneider and Alison Morrison-Shetlar, WCU’s provost, who previously served as vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies at UCF. Together, the three recipient universities, which all attract significant numbers of first-generation college students, will comprise a LEARN consortium.

Findings indicate that participants in living-learning communities have higher GPAs, increased interaction with faculty and peers, and a broader, more fulfilling educational experience. The community also comes at a critical time in an academic career: The first two years of college are a critical juncture for students in STEM fields. In a living-learning community, students are organized into cohorts that appeal to their interests and goals, thus the classroom and the living room reinforce and promote integrated learning. Such communities are designed to complement academic, co-curricular and thematic learning outcomes.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

So, what if future STEM needs aren’t met and the skills gap broadens?

Mark Sorrells, senior vice president of Golden LEAF, a North Carolina foundation for economic development, provided a quick reality check. “The world is changing rapidly,” he said. “Over the next 10 years, 80 percent of high-growth and high-wage jobs in the state will require a two-year degree or higher. A significant portion, 40 to 60 percent of new jobs, will require training in STEM disciplines.”

Education has to remain relevant to realities of the workplace; otherwise, too many people will be unprepared to compete for living wage jobs and forced to take lower-skilled, low-wage jobs and be underemployed, he said. This downward pressure would compound the challenges of dealing with poverty and further the divide between the “haves and have-nots.” North Carolina’s economic future depends on the ability to produce a high-quality workforce, Sorrells said.

Golden LEAF awarded a $225,000 grant to WCU’s College of Health and Human Sciences last July to help increase the number of family nurse practitioners working in health care settings. The funding also is intended to decrease the number of emergency room visits by uninsured residents of rural WNC seeking primary care by providing them with an alternative through access to family nurse practitioner services at the Good Samaritan Clinic, which primarily serves Jackson, Swain, Macon, Graham, Clay and Cherokee counties. Most of those counties are designated tier 1, or economically distressed, by the N.C. Department of Commerce, and all six are designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as “health provider shortage areas.”

Grants, along with regional public-private consortiums and educational partnerships, are relied upon to address a shortage in health care professionals, as well as career transitions into other STEM-dependent fields, Sorrells said. Community colleges play a vital role in job preparedness for STEM-related occupations, offering academic tracks for specialty training certification, associate degrees or transfer to a four-year institution.

A-B Tech, for example, received a $612,232 grant last year from the National Science Foundation through its Scholarships in STEM program, which supports community colleges’ preparation of students who will continue their education at four-year institutions. “Graduating students will be supported in transferring to a senior-level university through A-B Tech’s articulation agreements and other resources. We are partnering with WCU to provide transfer planning and internship referrals for its students,” said Beth Stewart, dean of arts and sciences at A-B Tech.

A community college beginning was certainly an advantage for Ben Stewart ’13 MS ’15 (no relation to the A-B Tech dean). He started his STEM academic career through a dual enrollment program offered to home-schooled students by Southwestern Community College in Sylva, gaining his high school diploma and an associate degree at the same time. Upon entering WCU, Stewart was able to complete his undergraduate degree in engineering technology in three years by bringing in those credits earned at the community college. A Macon County resident, he said he would like to work in product design, computer–assisted design and perhaps within the automotive field.

“I do believe taking advantage of an opportunity like early college sets individuals up for greater success for degrees and careers in the STEM fields,” Stewart said. “Any advantage a student can get in the ever-changing STEM-related academic programs is immensely helpful, not to mention preparation for the growing competition in STEM career fields.”

MORE THAN JOBS, STEM EDUCATION PROVIDES LIFE SKILLS

But there is a broader context to STEM education than just seeking STEM careers.

The NSF reports that individuals need not follow a linear pipeline from earning a STEM degree to a job in that same STEM field. Decades of data show that workers with those degrees follow numerous pathways leading to careers, both in and out of their field of study. Although many individuals with a STEM degree do not work in a STEM field, the majority indicated that their job is related to their STEM education, according to the report. This aspect enables individuals to apply STEM skills in jobs across the economy and employers to utilize workers with STEM skills in whatever ways add the greatest value.

Last October, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory announced that the state ranked 10th in both the “high-tech performance” and “innovation and entrepreneurship” categories of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s sixth-annual “Enterprising States: State Innovate” study. The study ranked states best poised to thrive in the rapidly evolving STEM-focused economy. It scored states in the categories of economic performance; transportation and trade; innovation and entrepreneurship; business climate; talent pipeline; and high-tech performance. McCrory pointed out the Connect NC bond referendum in March is a way to further invest in innovation. Connect NC would dedicate more than $1.3 billion to North Carolina’s university and community college systems for improvements like new science labs across the state.

“Innovation is the key to a growing 21st-century economy,” McCrory said. “It’s encouraging that our efforts to support innovation are being recognized around the country. We will continue to emphasize entrepreneurship and creativity so that innovation becomes a key factor in every North Carolina economic sector and continues to be a role model for other states.”

The Southwestern Commission’s Douglas gave further perspective: “As with all successful processes, STEM education is a fluid system that must be relevant to regional businesses and focused on current and emerging sectors. STEM opens the door to many opportunities for communities, job seekers and businesses,” Douglas said. “Businesses will continue to automate as they look to increase profitability. As this occurs, new machinery will need to be designed, manufactured, operated and maintained. New technologies will also require a skilled labor force to grow their respective industries.” Also, America’s aging population will continue to require and demand medical care, specialized medical treatments and pharmaceuticals, he said.

“STEM education has the potential to create a brighter future for the region, whose economic success will depend on how successful it is implemented in the near and distant future,” Douglas said.