Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers are the people who drive innovation and competitiveness in the United States, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Commerce. But businesses in Napa and across the nation say there is a shortage of such workers, despite continual job growth in these industries.
Business and education leaders say that students need more exposure to the STEM fields, beginning at the elementary school level and continuing through high school. They also say one of the best methods for getting students engaged in these subjects is project-based learning, which is an in-depth learning process in which students respond to complex questions and complete rigorous group projects. Napa Valley Unified is working to expand project-based learning across the district.
Lack of exposure
Somewhere between fourth grade and college, the excitement and love for learning “disappears,” said Napa Valley College biology professor Stephanie Burns.
Burns organizes a program at Napa Valley College called, “The Science Connection: NVC Inspiring the Next Generation.” The program works with Bel Aire Park Magnet School and sends science faculty to work with Bel Aire’s fourth graders. Recently, the students took a field trip to the college, where they participated in various labs that studied the anatomy and physiology of the brain.
“We want students to see there is a path to college and a path to STEM careers, and it’s right here in Napa,” Burns said.
Another goal of the program is to show students that science isn’t a “scary” subject.
“Often, kids get frightened of science,” Burns said. “They think it’s scary or hard. But science is so much fun.”
The founder of a Nevada-based electrical engineering firm, Karen Purcell, believes lack of exposure to the STEM fields is the biggest obstacle faced by young people, especially girls, who might otherwise pursue a STEM career.
Purcell, author of “Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math,” said that, traditionally, boys are encouraged more than girls to pursue science and math careers.
To get students of both genders interested in STEM, Purcell said educators should show how these subjects are applicable to real life — and an experience as simple as a field trip can help keep students engaged.
On average, people who work in STEM occupations earn significantly more than their counterparts, regardless of their educational background. In 2010, STEM workers with a high school diploma or less, for example, earned an average of almost $25 per hour — $9 more per hour than those in other occupations, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce report.
The majority of STEM workers, however, obtain a college degree — and those who do experience lower unemployment rates.
Dean Ehlen, coordinator of the Napa Valley College machine tool technology program, said that Bay Area refineries, steel companies and other large businesses have ample job opportunities but complain of a lack of employable people. Some people lack the expertise, while others simply lack the work ethic.
Just because a person graduates a program doesn’t mean they’re prepared for the workforce, Ehlen said. Employers want people who show up every day, are motivated to work and are able to complete projects, he said.
Often, school counselors will push failing students into shop-type programs, thinking they’re easy, hands-on courses — but that’s not the case, Ehlen said.
Barry Gates teaches the ROP course “Precision Machining Technology” at Napa High School. The goal is to feed into the machine tool technology program offered at Napa Valley College, where graduates can enter the workforce after earning a certificate or an associate degree.
The Napa High School course involves lessons in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry — and Gates quizzes students regularly on converting fractions into decimals.
While students may not have intended to sign up for a second math class, Gianmarco Fiorini, 18, said Precision Machining Technology isn’t like other “normal, boring” classes, because the math is being applied to “something real.”
Ehlen said he expected the course at Napa High School to benefit his program at Napa Valley College.
The best students in the college’s machine tool technology program are those who have studied engineering or have engineering capabilities, Ehlen said. The best machinists, he said, are skilled mathematicians and scientists.
“So many people think machinists are trained monkeys,” Ehlen said. “Those days are gone.”
Connecting students with STEM
Heather Jackson teaches the ROP course “Alternative Energy Physics” at Vintage High School. Students have the option of taking the course instead of traditional physics. The class, which is in its third year, does an abundant amount of projects and lab work and has attracted numerous students because of its hands-on approach.
“I wanted to take physics, but I didn’t want the regular, run-of-the-mill physics,” Rebecca Wolohan, 16, said. “I had lots of friends in (regular) physics last year and all they did was read, do math, and do stuff out of the textbook. It sounded really boring.”
Desmond Woodward, 17, said group projects are much more engaging than hearing a lecture or watching a video.
“It really helps bring (physics) home for a lot of students,” Woodward said. “Instead of taking notes on it, you’re a part of it.”
Business and education leaders have promoted “project-based learning” as an engaging curriculum model that brings real-world relevance to the academic subjects and better prepares students for college and the workforce.
Local business owner Gopal Shanker said he feels “jealous” of students who get to attend schools that teach project-based learning. When Shanker was a student, a teacher would lecture and students would have to recall what they knew on a test, he said. With project-based learning, Shanker said, students are given a problem, put in groups with people they may or may not like, and then they must solve the problem and present it to the class.
“This is precisely the training kids need,” Shanker said.
Shanker is the president of Recolte Energy, a Napa Valley– based renewable energy consulting firm. He has no formal training in renewable energy, but — as Shanker likes to point out — it doesn’t matter. The most valuable skills he’s learned are analyzing the way the world is going and knowing how to adapt.
Shanker, whose college degrees are in computer science and business, serves as an advisory committee member for the Napa County Office of Education’s ROP programs. Education officials work with local business leaders, like Shanker, to make sure the career technical education programs in schools remain relevant.
While obtaining a STEM degree may increase one’s chances of employment, Shanker said maintaining a career requires having more than one specific skill set.
He said that being able to install solar modules, for example, is a valuable skill — but it may become irrelevant in the future. If students want to be well-prepared for a successful career, they need to have a valuable skill as well as the ability to solve problems, communicate clearly and work with others. Shanker describes this as “staying power” — the most important skill in a rapidly changing world, he said.
“It’s very important to have a particular skill,” Shanker said, “but keeping your job and doing it well is another matter entirely.”