No wonder the director of the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health and many others are taking notice.
Science education is going big-time on a campus to which students are often transferring from community colleges. This is not the stuff of MIT or Cal Tech but of our own Universities at Shady Grove, along the Interstate 270 corridor. Maryland’s $175 million investment in biomedical sciences and engineering will launch in the form of a state-of-the-art facility opening this month and will offer a road map to skilled employment for thousands of low- and moderate-income scholars in our community. The attention to serving our region’s emerging middle class with the most advanced scientific study with degrees offered from nine institutions on one campus is virtually unheard of anywhere in this country.
This approach is a boon to Montgomery County and a solution to the need for skilled employment in the greater Washington area. Here’s why: For the first time in decades, if not ever, the growth of the local economy is almost completely reliant on our ability to educate our residents who are most likely to continue to live and work in our communities. The region has long benefited from the fact that educated workers will relocate to our communities seeking opportunities to work for the federal government or employers supporting government. In the past, we’ve had the most educated workforce of any metropolitan area in the nation — without having had to worry about how those workers got educated.
That’s changing. With increasing technology and globalization of the economy, as well as increasing uncertainty of federal employment, local workers can now get high-paying jobs in numerous other communities with a lower cost of living than the D.C. area. We need to address these challenges, and we have efforts underway in our community to do just that.
At USG, we are taking a reinvigorated approach to STEM education, in areas such as computing, health sciences, engineering, robotics and artificial intelligence. This is critical because all jobs are becoming increasingly embedded in and affected by technology. To cultivate new company growth and attract new employers to the region, it’s critical that our local education links with local industries to ensure graduates are acquiring the skills needed in the marketplace.
It’s vital that STEM progress happen rapidly and at scale for the region to remain competitive. According to code.org, there are more than 60,000 vacant computing jobs in Maryland and Virginia, and many of these remain vacant because employers can’t identify candidates with the appropriate skills. Our shortage of skilled workers is profound: In any given year, there are only about 5,000 computer science graduates in the region.
USG is in a unique position to help in closing this growing gap between employers’ needs and the availability of a highly skilled workforce. As with the county as a whole, there is no majority race within the student body at USG. USG’s undergraduate population is 32 percent white, 21 percent African American, 21 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Asian and 12 percent other race/ethnicity or multiple races.
As our communities become increasingly diverse and include many nontraditional students, our retooling must also provide ready access to high-quality education at local, affordable and accessible institutions.
We must celebrate programs that yield tremendous results, providing access to degrees at high graduation rates (more than 75 percent for transfer students at USG) for all students, especially those who wouldn’t typically have sought or had ready access to a four-year degree. And it happens at a significantly lower cost to students because of USG’s partnership with Montgomery College and other regional community colleges.
USG’s opening of the new BSE facility, with plans to educate up to 4,000 annually in STEM programs, will benefit our county and region and, not incidentally, fill the needs for many local employers.
This is the boldest step yet for the county’s commitment to supporting our next generation of scientists. Also, we’re doing the right thing: populating the future workforce with 21st-century skills and a focus on equity. Few other institutions across the land will be able to claim such outstanding, modern scientific education for a predominantly low-income population that’s poised to staff the multiple employers who will desperately need them in the coming years.