Wyoming Educators Look To Meet Demand For STEM Jobs

Aug 15, 2014

As Wyoming teachers gear up for another school year, there’s more emphasis than ever on improving so-called STEM education in the state. STEM is an acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As Wyoming Public Radio’s Aaron Schrank reports, the number of jobs in these fields is rapidly rising in Wyoming, and the state’s education leaders are working together to prepare.

Caroline Hickerson is a science teacher at St. Mary’s Middle School in Cheyenne. She’s spending one of her final days of summer vacation sitting in a classroom—at a STEM education conference put on by the Wyoming Department of Education and University of Wyoming. She’s here with a goal in mind.

At St. Mary’s, it is our goal to create an excellent STEM education for our middle school,” says Hickerson. “We want to be the best science program in Cheyenne, Wyoming.”

The school is adding a computer programming class to its schedule, and Hickerson is looking for ways to really get kids interested. She thinks she’s found it at an info session on robotics competitions. She says she doesn’t have much experience with robots.

“Absolutely none—well, I do have a Roomba,” Hickeron says. 

The representatives here from a robotics program called FIRST introduce Hickerson and a roomful of teachers to a robot no larger than a Roomba—called the LEGO Mindstorm EV3. They demonstrate how students can program the bot to interact with its surroundings.

"Of every 100 Bachelor's degree holders in the state of Wyoming in the near future, 55 of those degreed workers would be performing or working in STEM fields."

The program bills itself as “the hardest fun you’ll ever have.” FIRST regional director Richard Anderson says the elements of teamwork and competition make it the perfect entrée into hands-on STEM concepts.

“The robot is just the catch,” says Anderson. “It’s the grab that the kids get excited about. It’s what happens behind the scenes that’s most important. It’s the kids that want to do the hard math, the physics, the science, the engineering that it takes to build this robot or solve this problem.”

Wyoming is pushing programs like this, because, there’s expected to be somewhere around 15,000 STEM jobs to fill within the state in the next four years. Teri Wigert, the State Director for Career Technical Education says most Wyoming jobs that require four-year degrees, will be STEM-related.

“Of every 100 Bachelor’s degree holders in the state of Wyoming in the near future, 55 of those degreed workers would be performing or working in STEM fields,” Wigert says.

That’s based on a Georgetown University analysis, and it means Wyoming is expected to lead the nation in the proportion of STEM jobs for Bachelor’s degree holders. In most states, the bulk of STEM jobs are computer-related. In Wyoming, it’s all about engineering. Wigert says, many here have too narrow a view of STEM. 

“They think of it in very specific—science must mean scientists and agronomists,” says Wigert. “Math must mean actuaries or math teachers. But really these fields are much broader.”

She says that’s part of the purpose of this conference—to expose educators to the wide world of STEM—and help them find programs and projects that fit their students’ needs. Sherry Spofford is a seventh and eighth grade science teacher at Wyoming Indian Middle School in Ethete. She’s touring Bright Agrotech vertical farm in Laramie with other conference attendees.

“My school population is 99.9 percent Native American,” says Spofford. “And so, I have been looking more at the agricultural and plant-based projects and things—because plants play an important role in the two Native American cultures that are on my reservation.”

The greenhouses here are filled with plants and herbs in 5-foot vertical growing towers. There’s no soil involved. It’s all done hydroponically.

“We get about 2 or 3 times the production per square foot that you would if you were doing it horizontally,” says CEO Nate Storey, who started this company while he was an agronomy student at UW. He says teachers can set up growing towers like this in their classrooms for a couple hundred bucks.

“And it’s something that’s kind of a great launching point for talking to kids about plants and production,” Storey says. “And how things grow—where their food comes from, and all the issues that surround our food supply.”

With limited classroom space at Wyoming Indian, Spofford says vertical farming would be a good fit. And, she says, for many of her students who come from generational poverty and families without much education, projects like this could engage students with science and math concepts in a way most schoolwork can’t.

“You know, they feel like they can’t do a lot, because they’re not exposed to a lot and so forth,” Spofford says. “But that is changing and so we need to change too, and the STEM affords them the opportunity to learn that, hey, I can do this.”

More than 100 Wyoming teachers and administrators attended this conference, but event organizers say it’s going to take more than just educators. Parents, businesses and entire communities will need to make STEM a priority—if Wyoming hopes to keep pace with the rest of the country—and world.

These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen!  -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.