Colorado has become a technology hub, as more and more STEM and Computer Science (CS)-based businesses move into the area, which has created new jobs and drawn STEM/CS talent from all corners.
STEM jobs are among the fastest growing in the nation: with top jobs found in Healthcare, Information Technology, Finance, Construction Trades and Engineering (Colorado Talent Report, 2016). From 2008 to 2018, STEM-related jobs in Colorado increased by 28%, which is 11% above the national average (Georgetown STEM state-level analysis report). Despite this growth, there is an alarming deficit of STEM-prepared workers: for every one unemployed STEM worker in Colorado, there are 15.3 job openings (Denver Post, 2017). This deficit needs to be addressed in order for Colorado to maintain a sustainable STEM industry.
While Colorado is struggling to meet these growing economic demands, industry employers have been facing the reality of a workforce that does not have the skills needed for STEM/CS jobs.
In attempt to address this issue and create a sustainable pipeline of future employees, industry partners have been funding myriads of STEM/CS programs for students. However, these attempts will prove futile. There is a missing link that impedes long-term sustainability: highly qualified STEM teachers.
Yes, the STEM industry is booming and actively involved in education. Yes, exciting and successful STEM programs are in place for students. And yes, funding is actually available. However, the absence of highly qualified STEM teachers will prove to be the key without which a sustainable STEM pipeline is an impossible dream.
Where Are All of Our Workers?
The deficit of STEM-prepared workers in Colorado can be attributed to a variety of factors, some of which include: the increasing need for post-secondary credentials in STEM fields, a clear lack of cohesion between various educational levels and industry demands and an education system that is not equipped to provide students with prevalent STEM knowledge that prepares them for the economic demands of the workforce.
All of these factors however, are overshadowed by the severe teacher shortage.
This shortage of STEM/CS qualified teachers directly affects the STEM work-pipeline. Schools do not have enough STEM/CS qualified teachers: as a result, schools either eliminate STEM/CS courses (many of which may not have been offered in the first place), or educators who are not STEM/CS qualified are charged with teaching them. Despite their best efforts, these teachers are unprepared to provide students with the relevant and critical information they need to succeed in STEM/CS-related professions.
Among other aspects, students are missing important opportunities to learn about exciting occupations in STEM/CS fields: a much-needed facet of the STEM/CS pipeline that aids in providing a workforce that is both excited about, and prepared for, the current and future workforce demands.
The Most Important School-based Factor in Student Learning
The importance of teacher preparation cannot be understated.
In a study addressing teacher preparation specifically in STEM areas, Teacher Preparation: One Key to Unlocking the Gate to STEM Literacy, it was found “that only a thorough familiarity with STEM content will enable a teacher to effectively engage a class of middle or high school students in STEM learning. All of the programs that have successfully improved STEM literacy [for students] have necessarily included preparation of teachers” (Ledbetter, 2012). Highly prepared teachers are the key to STEM/CS sustainability and the missing link between students and industry.
The alarming lack of resources available to teachers however, inhibits them from maintaining relevance and inspiring students to move into STEM fields. Strong teacher preparation is a necessity in improving STEM literacy among students.
The correlation between student outcomes and teacher inputs is indisputable; in order to increase student excitement, participation and success in STEM, STEM teachers must first be sufficiently prepared. Teachers are unequivocally the key to a sustainable STEM pipeline.
It is thus of utmost concern that while every state offers Math and Science endorsement programs for teachers, there are only 16 states that offer STEM credentialing pathways. Even those pathways are often inconsistent and, more importantly, they lack cohesive integration with the needs outlined by cutting-edge STEM industries. Notably, the majority of those credentialing pathways are certificates, not endorsements certified by State Departments of Education—a troubling reality given the current state of economic demand.
This implication is mimicked in Colorado, where, apart from the CTE STEM credential, which is difficult to receive and demands tedious amounts of unrelated credentials, no such STEM credentialing pathway exists. This holds true despite the paramount importance given to increasing STEM and teacher preparation credentials.
Our Greatest Leverage
Teachers Prepare the Future
Teachers are by far the greatest lever the economy can use to develop a sustainable STEM pipeline.
Unfortunately, the increasing shortage of teachers, the inadequate access to resources and the lack of pathways that produce qualified STEM teachers only perpetuate the growing gap between workforce-ready individuals and economic demands.
If a sustainable STEM pipeline is not created, industry will be forced to continually train employees, a difficult and highly expensive venture.
The Colorado Departments of Education and Higher Education have clearly placed a priority on increasing the number of qualified STEM students and educators. However, the absence of STEM qualified educators in Colorado, the missing piece to the sustainable STEM pipeline, needs to be addressed urgently in order to meet current and future workforce demands.
Creating a Sustainable Talent Pipeline
mindSpark Learning, in collaboration with Couragion, Metropolitan State University of Denver and Colorado Succeeds, set out to address these needs. In a room filled with some of Colorado’s most ingenious minds, the solution began to take shape. And, its name is STEMpath.
STEMpath is an unprecedented teacher certification program that affords educators the opportunity to take part in a graduate-level program that provides teachers with the competence and skills to teach STEM, computer science and computational thinking. This 12-18-month program fuses 3 critical components of teacher preparation that are typically offered separately, and intertwines them into one unparalleled learning experience:
STEMpath combines work-based learning through in-industry externships, graduate-level coursework and professional learning centered around career literacy, information science and equity-centered design thinking to provide a well-rounded, well-informed perspective of STEM far beyond traditional skills. While the initial sequence will focus on computer science, STEMpath is designed to be a plug and play system that allows educators to deep dive into various facets of the STEM spectrum by simply changing the graduate-level coursework.
Starting in Colorado, STEMpath will meet the needs of our educators, students and workforce. By leveraging teachers, we will create a sustainable STEM pipeline that meets the workforce needs of today and tomorrow.
However, there needs to be a paradigm shift in teacher appreciation, value and preparation. STEMpath is the catalyst to this paradigm shift; it is the complete game-changer we’ve been waiting for.