To create a pipeline of STEM workers in Virginia, program starts with littlest learners


At top, Jennie Dean Elementary third-graders Stephani Castro, from left, DeShaun Gibson, Shirley Borja, Victor Ssegawa and Princess Lowery feel the bubbles formed from mixing soapy water and dry ice during a science demonstration in their school’s auditorium in Manassas. Above, Jennie Dean Elementary teacher Christi Morton talks about phase changes before an experiment with dry ice. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan )

The group of safety-goggled third-graders from Jennie Dean Elementary in Manassas is hovered over a large bowl in which they’ve just taken turns dropping chunks of dry ice, or solid carbon dioxide, into water. A swirl of gas has formed that looks like it should be coming off a witch’s cauldron, a process that volunteer instructor Michael Ahern explains is called sublimation.

“Guys, look at that, it’s going around and around!” Princess Lowery, 8, shouts to her classmates.

Their antsy excitement is now heightened as Ahern prepares for his big finale: He has the children put dry ice in soapy water, which causes a snaking train of bubbles to spill out of the container and prompts a collective gleeful shriek from his audience.

Before Ahern sends the students off, he tells them that the nation and their local community need many more people to become scientists. And if they become scientists, he adds, they’ll get to do more hands-on projects like this one.

So, Ahern says, “If anyone asks you what you want to be when you grow up — ”

Before he can finish the thought, Princess jumps in.

“I’m going to say science!” she declares with a wide smile.

Princess’s enthusiasm is just the kind of reaction the creators of today’s lesson, SySTEMic Solutions, are hoping for. The program aims to ignite in Northern Virginia’s littlest learners a passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the STEM fields, as they’re commonly known — and in doing so, to help ready the region for the economy of tomorrow.

Bridging the gap

The goal of SySTEMic Solutions is to tackle a vexing disconnect between employers and the labor force. Companies say they urgently need to hire workers with STEM skills, but they are frequently unable to find people who have the right knowledge and training. Meanwhile, many Americans today struggle to find work, having been left behind by a labor market in which more and more jobs require at least some technical know-how.

SySTEMic Solutions is aiming to close that skills gap, an imperative that may be especially crucial in the Washington region: A 2013 study by the Brookings Institution found that 27.1 percent of jobs here require STEM knowledge. That means that STEM jobs comprise a larger share of positions here than in every other metropolitan area in the United States except Silicon Valley.

The demand is only projected to grow greater. The Washington area is poised to add 50,000 net new STEM jobs between 2013 and 2018, according to projections by Stephen S. Fuller, the director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. And Fuller said that STEM jobs are crucial in that they typically pay about twice as much as the average job in the Washington area and they generate significantly more economic value.

It is against this backdrop that SySTEMic Solutions is working to build a pipeline of STEM workers for the state of Virginia, starting with elementary school children and working to keep them consistently interested in the subject matter until they finish school and enter the workforce.

The program is led by Northern Virginia Community College in partnership with local businesses, chambers of commerce and school systems. After starting in Prince William County in 2010, it has expanded recently to include students in Loudoun County, Manassas, Fairfax County and other parts of Northern Virginia. The program expects to have 40,000 students in the STEM pipeline in 2016.

SySTEMic Solutions began with $1 million in state funding, and has since received additional state funding that was matched with corporate donations. Now, Megan Healy, the state’s director of STEM, said her office is considering expanding the program statewide.

Legions of programs have cropped up across the country in recent years to address the STEM worker shortage, but so far, many of them have struggled to get participants to stay the course and ultimately choose careers in these fields. While it will take years to get a clear sense of whether SySTEMIic Solutions is successful in steering its participants into STEM careers, its organizers are betting that its highly replicable, tackle-from-all-sides approach will allow it to play a critical role in shaping the local workforce.

Coordinated outreach

Before Amy Harris led SySTEMic Solutions for NVCC, she worked in university and academic relations at Micron, the Manassas manufacturer of semiconductors.

At the time, the company was looking to retrain some of its front-line workers as its factory-floor technology changed. As Harris worked to coordinate that training, she had a realization.

“Everybody in this region was out there doing their own thing in STEM,” Harris said. “Lockheed had a great STEM outreach program. Micron had a great program. Why are we all out there on our own? This is ridiculous.”

Furthermore, Harris said many local companies’ outreach budgets, including Micron’s, were squeezed in the wake of the recession, so they no longer had as much money to put toward their own corporate STEM programs.

With those challenges in mind, SySTEMic Solutions was formed, and Harris left Micron to direct the program she had helped to conceive. The idea is that a unified effort involving businesses, chambers of commerce, higher education and K-12 schools can make a greater impact than a hodgepodge of well-intentioned but isolated programs.

“What SySTEMic Solutions really turned into was almost like the back-office function to be able to support a coordinated STEM outreach in the region,” Harris said.

The program starts in elementary school, where the focus is largely on hands-on lessons such as the one given at Jennie Dean Elementary. For middle school students, they begin to incorporate activities such as robotics clubs and STEM-related competition teams. By 11th and 12th grade, students are able to dually enroll at their high school and NVCC, so they can begin to earn college credits in STEM-related classes.

The curriculum is influenced by a task force of NVCC faculty, curriculum specialists from the school divisions and volunteers from local companies.

The program can also be tailored based on the interests of different student populations. For example, robotics camps have been enormously popular in Loudoun County. This year, some 350 students registered for camp within two hours, and hundreds more remain on the wait list.

However, in Fairfax, Harris said students gravitate more toward cybersecurity-related competitions. SySTEMic Solutions can select corporate partners and volunteers to match these interests.

“These kids are hungry for these opportunities,” Harris said. “It’s a matter of figuring out what is needed.”

Since the program is new enough that many of its participants have not yet entered the workforce, it’s hard to measure what its impact has been. However, Harris said that the engineering program at NVCC’s Manassas campus has grown from about 12 to 14 students in 2011 to more than 200 students.

“While we haven’t actually tracked exactly why that’s happened, you have to attribute it to the fact that we’ve kept these kids engaged,” Harris said.

Staying ahead

Harris said it typically hasn’t been difficult to get corporate partners to work with SySTEMic Solutions.

“The corporations understand that they’re not going to get the workers overnight, but we do have to start as early as elementary school to keep them on that pathway,” Harris said.

BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, and Micron are among their large partners; the program also works with seven local chambers of commerce.

At Micron, some 94 employees volunteered with SySTEMic in a variety of capacities. Some taught hands-on lessons in local schools, some judged robotics competitions and others gave tours of the factory to groups of students and science teachers.

Zuzana Steen, Micron’s university and academic relations manager, said that participating in SySTEMic Solutions is not just about building the company’s future workforce: She sees it as a tool for retaining current employees, because it has provided team-building opportunities, a chance to give back to the community, and a way to try out new skills such as making a presentation.

As Harris looks at the prospect of expanding SySTEMic Solutions statewide, she said her biggest hurdle will be to keep the curriculum relevant in a climate of fast-moving innovation.

“It’s really trying to figure out from the corporations what are the lowest common denominators of skills to get ahead in the economy going forward?” Harris said. “It’s a challenge to stay relevant, to stay ahead of the curve.”

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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