Influential business leaders, companies, and representative groups - including the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, the Utah Technology Council, and Prosperity 2020 - are leading a charge to advance science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in Utah.
On Thursday, the Utah House passed HB139, which would give a total of $15 million dollars to the initiative. $10 million would go to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development to create a STEM Action Center, and $5 million would go to the Utah State Office of Education for a matching grant program for school districts.
Representative Val Peterson, House sponsor of the bill said, “This bill is really about three things. Providing our children with skills to be competitive in a global environment. Two, making us globally competitive and keeping us globally competitive…The third thing, making sure that Utah’s economy remains strong.”
Mark Bouchard, chairman of Prosperity 2020, a partnership between education officials and private industry, testified during a House Economic Development and Workforce Services committee meeting. He said that companies are ready to expand, but want a guaranteed workforce.
“L3 Communications is willing to give us 500 more positions here in Utah. They love this state. They love what they have accomplished here in this state. But their CEO’s first observation to us is, ‘Before we’ll give you 500 new positions, we have to fill the 300 vacant positions we have right now,’” said Bouchard.
The goals of the STEM Action Center are not yet well defined, but generally will be tasked with funding STEM education projects and 21st century teaching tools, identifying best practices in STEM education, and coordinating industry needs with education outcomes.
“The vast majority of the money is going to the classroom,” said Stan Lockhart, private sector chair for the STEM initiative. He added that could include digital learning devices, labs, and other hands-on approaches, “There’s a lot of curriculum enhancement that goes on in a classroom to help a teacher, and that’s where most of this money is going.”
There are differing opinions about whether the Governors Office of Economic Development or the State Office of Education should house the STEM Action Center, and whether a GOED-run STEM center is constitutional. Nevertheless, the bill has broad support among industry, the private sector, and both K-12 and higher education officials.
25 states currently have STEM centers. 16 of them, including Utah’s neighboring states - Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona –are part of a network called STEMx that collaborate and share best practices.
The house passed HB139 with a vote of 68 to 1. The bill now moves to the Senate.
Update: A modified version of the bill passed the house and senate on March 14, 2013. $1.5 million will go toward establishing a STEM Action Center, and $8.5 million toward enhancing 8th grade math proficiency.