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.

STEM employment

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.”

(13) comments

Old Time Napkin

napa333, you are absolutely correct. The examples that kids see today from sports figures to politicians, etc. are a real detriment to trying to teach ethics in our children.


Old Time Napkin, Honesty, integrity and commitment are lacking in our corporations, politicians athletes etc. These honorable traits have been replaced with greed, lying, cheating and stealing. What children are seeing these days is "the end justify the means".

Old Time Napkin

Great comments by teacher , napa1957, and napa333. I wonder when it started that being "stupid" or acting stupid was "cool". Part of the problem is the "dumbing down" of the classroom, so that no child is offended because they did not get a passing grade. You might call this a "redistribution" of the grade system. Kids are eager to learn and want to be competitive, but if you don't allow that to happen for fear of offending another kid there's no incentive for the bright kid to move forward. I recall kids repeating a grade or class if they didn't work hard enough to get a passing grade. I don't recall any kid that was harmed by that process, but they did learn to work harderand pay attention. Honesty, ,integrity, and committment are all things that should be taught by parents and reinforced by the schools. These particular ethics have a direct effect on learning, personal pride, and the child's future as a productive member of society.


My wife works with a gal in her early 30's that can't brag enough about her college degree but can't spell or write a sentence with proper punctuation.


Dean Elhlen's note about the need for a work ethic is, in my opinion, one of the key elements for the future of our work force. I have first hand experience with the lack of the above in many of our young employees. Some seem to believe that it is impossible to arrive on time in the morning, remember to clock out when they go to lunch, or be able to do their work assignments without benefit of an ear-bud connecting them to their Ipods, or Words With Fiends on their phones.

a teacher
a teacher

It's also a feature of our culture that we believe that success is a product of talent rather than hard work and experience. Americans believe that you have "it", or you don't. I see this also play out in the classroom where students conclude that they are not really smart enough to solve a problem and give up with little effort. For some students, no amount of coaxing helps.

Jim Sigler, a psychologist at UCLA who studies differences in school systems around the world, points out that in America we see struggle as a sign of weakness, if you have to work hard, you don't have "it". In Japan, struggle is a part of the process. This plays out in the classroom where American students give up quickly while Japanese students persist.

Math and science are hard. One has to put a lot of effort into mastering the subjects. Hence, they're scary.

a teacher
a teacher

The fault lies within American culture. We are deeply distrustful of high intelligence and intellect. I've taught in many different schools in four different regions of this country and I've seen this play out over and over again. Smart kids hide their intelligence so that they are not ostracized by their peers. Smart girls are afraid they won't get boyfriends, smart boys are afraid of being tagged as nerds or weaklings. Black students, particularly boys, don't want to be accused of "acting white" by succeeding in school. It's a factory mentality where the group has to drag down the ones who are setting the bar higher.

It's very depressing to watch smart kids make poor choices in the pursuit of "being cool".

Watch TV, particularly kids TV. Smart men and boys are portrayed as loners or socially awkward and weird (see Big Bang Theory). Smart girls never get the guy unless they stop acting smart. It's no wonder to me why kids don't want to pursue science.


Your comments are spot on, teacher.


What people appear to forget in the "project-based" frenzy is that plenty of innovative technologies sprouted out of people who were educated by more traditional forms of pedagogy. This does not imply that we shouldn't try new things, especially if we wish to make higher education and its possibilities available to students who have historically been denied access. But the elephant in the room here is that students in many subjects, not just science and math, need two things: 1) self-discipline, the ability to put aside laziness now to achieve a greater goal later on, and 2) to memorize certain facts and knowledge, in order to have the factual base, tools with which to really "imagine" later on. And as a teacher in the system now, I can see that they aren't getting those two crucial things. I would much rather see schools help students find their passions, whether they be in STEM or music or service or whatever. And publiusa, I didn't get a raise, I got my old salary restored.


publiusa , I wonder if the teachers in Conn. consider themselves overpaid.

Madison Jay Hamilton
Madison Jay Hamilton

There is no shortage of highly trained STEM workers in the United States. The unemployment and underemployment rate for highly trained college graduates is alarmingly high. Alas, there is a shortage of workers willing to work long hours for starvation wages and no or few benefits. Corporate America desires an American workforce willing and able to compete with unorganized, easily-exploited workers in Third World countries. We are witnessing the privatization of our schools.

Read "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education," by Diane Ravitch.

This article largely summarizes propaganda offered by the well-financed, corporate school reform industry.

In the future, I strongly suspect that opportunities to receive a classic liberal arts education will be limited to those from families wealthy enough to scoff at current attempts to transform our public educational system into boot camps for Corporate America's future serfs.


Too many college grads can't find work because when you test them for skills they were suppose to have mastered they can't do it.

A business grad who can't write a Business Plan, Marketing Plan and budget is useless.


Mr. Burns says kids think science is "scary and hard"? I can see why. STARTesting scores for Napa Valley Unified students are failing science, math, history and English, all 4 important core subjects to get a job and to succeed in life. Is kids think a subject is hard or scary it is a direct reflection on poor teachers - but with all the failures the teachers just got a 2% raise - rewarding their failure.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.