In a Forbes Magazine review of The New Geography of Jobs, a book by Enrico Moretti, the reviewer said it was “The most important read of 2012.” In the simplest of terms, Moretti’s message is: human capital and innovation are the fundamental sources of economic development.
Innovation, says Moretti, comes from “brain hubs” where innovation workers like engineers and designers generate about five times as many local jobs for service workers – such as lawyers, carpenters, and waitresses – as those in other industries. In other words, by creating one high paying, high tech job there’s a job multiplier effect five times that number – their success leads to the formation of lots of high-paying service work.
With human capital, people learn from each other where there’s an exchange of information, technology and research. Moretti contends “distance workers” don’t work because the innovative like to surround themselves with more innovators – and it’s hard to do that over a VPN connection.
For the old model of economic growth, cities that attract talent win. In the new model, cities that produce talent win. Where there is a density of these workers, there is a density of jobs. To create those talented innovators takes education – STEM Education – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
An Enlightened Speakers Series event in San Antonio featured four people involved in nurturing students in the STEM fields: Scott Gray, President, Elevate Systems and Board Chair, SASTEMIC; Dr. Winston Erevelles, Dean, College of Science, Engineering & Technology, St. Mary’s University; Dr. Lucretia Fraga, Associate Director for Instructional Technology, UTSA; and Cliff Zintgraff, CEO, DaVinci Minds.
Erevelles tackled the most basic question head on — Why STEM? – by ticking off some of our most important problems: environment, world population, clean water, conflict, aging population and energy.
“Can you see the United States or Texas or San Antonio in any of this?” he asked. “All of these are issues that drive our national, state and local economy.”
Erevelles suggested shifting the focus closer to home – San Antonio. The Economic Development Foundation of San Antonio has identified areas of growth for the city, including aerospace/aviation, bioscience/healthcare, environmental technology, financial services, IT/Cybersecurity, Manufacturing, and Military/Defense.
“As an academic institution would it not make sense to turn around and say, ‘I’m going to do my programming on the needs of this region? he asked. “That’s what St. Mary’s has done.”
Scott Gray said waiting until college is too late. It might even be too late to try to reach kids about STEM fields when they’re in 5th or 6th grade.
“It’s got to start at kindergarten,” he said.
Gray and others formed a non-profit called the San Antonio STEM Connectory. “We want to connect the dots between all STEM events and organizations who are doing things,” he said.
The STEM Connectory converted a bus donated by Rackspace into a teaching bus. It does what Gray calls “reverse field trips” – visiting schools to introduce children to tech activities, such as how to design video games. “Not how to play the game but how to make the game,” said Gray. “Not only did we teach them how to create the graphics and how to create the game but also how to create the gaming board – a circuit board.”
Lucretia Fraga from UTSA said the university’s Academy for Teacher Excellence is also targeting younger children, and is doing it through after school clubs, including a robotics club. The program is called “La Clase Mágica” or “The Magic Class,” and by offering it after school, state requirements that must be met during the regular school day are not an issue. Instead, STEM curriculum can be taught informally, using a bi-lingual approach.
“Research has shown us over and over again that children learn best in their native languages and La Clase Mágica supports that approach,” Fraga said.
In one San Antonio community, 97 percent of the children in the program are Latino, 100 percent are on free or reduced cost lunch programs, 56 percent are native Spanish speakers, and 31 percent have limited English. “That’s who we serve,” said Fraga.
She cited figures from the state demographer that show Texas will have an Hispanic majority population by 2020. At the same time, only 60 percent of Hispanics get a high school diploma, and about 10 percent get a bachelor’s degree. “We need to make sure they are educated in order to prosper in the future,” she said.
Erevelles added to the urgency of the preparation question. He cited figures showing that only one out of three students is ready for their first algebra or calculus class. One out of three are one class behind, and one out of three are two classes behind.
“We can take the focus that this is somebody else’s problem,” he said. “It’s not my problem, it’s the high school’s problem and as long as they send me qualified students, it will all be just fine. Wrong – we all have to take responsibility for this collectively as a community.”
One way to help prepare children is to integrate parents into their education. “In education, we call what the parents don’t know the ‘The App Gap,’ and it’s getting wider in Latino families,” Fraga said. So parents are learning the same things their children are learning – even using the same iPads as their children.
Erevelles noted that an approach like Fraga’s sends the message that science, technology, engineering and math are fun, and that they can be done. “There are no barriers in gender, color, race, religion,” he said. “Anybody who wants access to it can get it.”
At St. Mary’s, Erevelles said freshmen are now declaring STEM majors over any other discipline – and by a healthy margin. The university has an enrollment that is 73 percent Hispanic. “You have to be able to guide, mentor, shape and push this generation,” he said. “You have to be able to energize and get the teachers excited and revitalized.”
Clint Zintgraff of DaVinci Minds tied that approach back to the Moretti book mentioned earlier. Instead of saying, “Cities that produce talent, win,” Zintgraff said, “Cities or communities that organize to produce and employ talent, win.”
For example, he said, in 2000 there was a lot of talk about cybersecurity in San Antonio and how to develop more jobs in the field. The Information Technology and Security Academy (ITSA) began in 2002, created as a partnership between the city’s 17 independent school districts, the Alamo colleges and industry. Students spend half days as juniors and seniors learning a dedicated curriculum on information technology and security. Between their junior and senior year they get an internship.
The ITSA was instrumental in getting the Air Force to locate the headquarters for the 24th Air Force in San Antonio. Its mission is cybersecurity, and as people retire from the Air Force, they go to work for defense contractors or start their own companies. Zintgraff said it’s an example of how high tech work creates more jobs.
“We as employers need to hire folks with technical capability out of our local colleges and universities,” Gray said. His Elevate Systems is in the business of keeping old weapons systems functioning, since the DOD is not buying new ones.
“Elevate takes old things and we make them like new,” he said. “It takes mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and some metallurgical knowledge. Our job is to get these kids excited about the STEM pathways.”
Gray urged employers to bring students in as interns. “Get them into your business, pay them a decent wage, and that way when they graduate we can hire someone who knows what we know,” he said.
Erevelles echoed those comments. “Projects, internships, research opportunities and mentoring – you won’t get out of the institution what you want if you’re not at the table being part of the solution,” he said.
Despite the emphasis on early STEM education, Gray observed that “Not every kid is a STEM kid.” But he said it’s important to expose all children to the possibilities, because “Kids don’t know what they don’t know.”
Erevelles said one way to deal with students who develop an interest in STEM careers late in their academic life is to offer “bridge” programs that allow them to catch up over a six to twelve-week period. He said St. Mary’s doesn’t make students take classes sequentially anymore. Some classes are offered every semester, so no matter when a student enters the program, it’s available right away.
But Erevelles said it’s also important not to lose sight of the big picture. “You can turn around and produce outstanding STEM talent, no matter what branch of science or computing or engineering or technology you look at,” he said. “But if all you have done is produce a tool and he or she is ineffective over the duration, then what have you done?” “Effectiveness,” Erevelles said, “comes from other things, like language, history, cultural sensitivity, and curiosity; understanding the impact of solutions in a global context; and the ability to reinvent oneself in changing environments based on global needs.”
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