Meeting Wisconsin's Workforce Needs
STEM Forward engages children and teens in education
Wisconsin STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs will increase at double the rate of other occupations over the course of the next decade, offering higher incomes and lower unemployment than other occupations, according to Change the Equation’s 2017 Vital Signs report. But there remains apprehension among some Wisconsin employers as to whether the Wisconsin workforce can meet the need.
“What we’re hearing from businesses primarily is that they are concerned about the amount of STEM talent and the future pipeline of workers they’ll need,” says Rich Merkel, executive director of STEM Forward, an independent Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization dedicated to engaging children and teens in STEM programming. “Businesses are in a very competitive environment, the pace of technology has changed, the marketplace is increasing. I think businesses are under more pressure than ever to keep up not only with their competitors but with their customers.”
Guided by a board of directors comprised of local education and business leaders, STEM Forward has focused on STEM education and outreach since the early 1990s. Programs and events include but are not limited to the Future City Competition, the Day of Engineering, the Engineers Week Banquet, the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest and MPS STEM Partners, a program devoted to providing MPS students with access to Milwaukee’s business community through projects and activities.
In response to the demands of STEM employers there has been a proliferation of STEM programming in Wisconsin schools. Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), for instance, has made great strides in STEM education. A collaborator of STEM Forward, MPS now has STEM programs in 37 schools and reports great STEM interest among students despite national trends.
“We see a lot of interest in STEM at the elementary schools, middle schools and high schools,” says Eric Radomski, senior manager of career and technical education at Milwaukee Public Schools. “We have people asking all the time to put Project Lead The Way, our biggest program, in their schools. And interest among girls is high; 47% of students in our STEM programs are female.”
Unfortunately, there can be a disconnect between what students aspire to and what they are prepared to achieve. For instance, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction 2015-2016 Accountability Report Card for the district of Milwaukee, MPS received a 35.9/100 in student achievement and 16.8/50 for mathematics achievement. The statewide average, however, met expectations, with 67.5/100 in student achievement and 33.9/50 in mathematics achievement.
Moving forward, both Merkel and Radomski believe that access and education is the right path for students. “Looking to our neighboring states Iowa or Michigan where they have a formal state agenda and organization to facilitate STEM learning across the state, including appropriations from the state budget, we are really behind,” says Merkel. “For example, in Iowa a Governor’s STEM Advisory Council has divided the state into six quadrants through their universities; each of these regions is implementing a dozen or more STEM programs. They evaluate these STEM programs on an annual basis and as a result, through ACT testing, they’ve seen marked gains in terms of student participation and performance in STEM. In Wisconsin, the state agenda or organization dedicated to coordinating STEM is less structured. We’re really bringing about the next generation of engineers and scientists. We have to get this right.”