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California STEM Learning Network

As I travel the entire state and talk to employers, however, the refrain is the same whether I am in the Central Valley, Los Angeles or the Inland Empire: we need more highly skilled STEM workers.
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Among the many eye-opening statistics in "Vital Signs", a new report published by the national nonprofit Change the Equation, was this: despite having the third highest unemployment rate in the nation, California has nearly 1.5 open jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields for every qualified job seeker.

This may not come as surprising news to those of us who live in the Bay Area, home to Silicon Valley and the social media mecca of San Francisco, where Google, Apple and Genentech buses troll the streets in my neighborhood, whisking away their growing legions of young, energetic employees to their campuses.

As I travel the entire state and talk to employers, however, the refrain is the same whether I am in the Central Valley, Los Angeles or the Inland Empire: we need more highly skilled STEM workers.

What is perhaps more shocking to California residents is that, despite being the STEM-epicenter of the world, with more Nobel Laureates, patents, and leading research institutions than any other state, California students are among the lowest-performing and least-funded, with fewer students earning degrees in STEM fields compared to other states.

In fact, in a state with nearly one million STEM workers and an expected 19 percent growth rate in STEM jobs over the next decade, we are only producing about 21,000 STEM bachelor's degrees annually, with only 1 in 10 degrees or certificates awarded in STEM fields. More troubling is the small percentage of women and minorities earning degrees in these fields.

This is not to place blame on our schools or educators, who have faced disastrous and demoralizing budget cuts over the past few years. More than 20,000 K-12 teachers have been laid off, and those who remain are facing larger classes and heavier work loads. It is not surprising that under these conditions, enrollments in teacher preparation programs have plummeted, down by half over the last few years.

Nevertheless, there are some bright spots and clear opportunities that we must seize upon. Student achievement levels among California's more than six million students -- the state educates nearly one in eight students nationally -- have been slowly rising, a testament to innovative schools and passionate school leaders and teachers who are making dramatic gains despite having fewer resources. California has some of the most innovative and effective technological tools and programs to better educate our students, but our schools need help in scaling these promising practices.

California is also playing a leadership role in working with other states to develop new college and career-ready STEM standards, including Next Generation Science Standards, which place greater emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving skills in science and engineering and their connection to the use of technology.

These new standards, similar to the Common Core State Standards in Math and English Language Arts recently adopted by California and most other states, focus on incorporating deep learning practices alongside content knowledge -- an issue identified by employers as a critical gap in students' preparation -- enabling them to be problem-solvers and innovators, or as my organization calls them, "STEM-capable" graduates.

Taken together, these new standards open up exciting possibilities for teachers to connect their students to relevant, real-world learning that captures their imagination, fosters creativity, and opens their eyes to potential careers in STEM and other fields. I believe that these new standards, while undoubtably challenging for teachers, will once again light the fire that can spark a teacher's passion -- and consequently his or her students' -- in the classroom.

These new STEM standards have another important consequence. They have created a "reset button" for policy, providing states the opportunity to re-think curriculum and high-stakes testing, how we prepare and support teachers, and how we deliver high-quality education. In so doing, they offer the promise of breaking down the walls between the classroom and real-world learning experiences.

There is no doubt that California's leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics has contributed to our ability to compete as a state and to our deserved reputation as the international leader in cutting-edge innovation. We can, and must, once again seize the opportunity to provide leadership to the nation.

To that end, the California STEM Learning Network is collaborating with key leaders from K-12, higher education, business and industry, funders and state policymakers to do just that. This month, we will be bringing together leaders from each of these groups in San Diego to build and advance a common agenda that will transform STEM education and build capacity across the state to ensure a brighter future for our students and create a blueprint for other states in preparing the next generation of great innovators and leaders in science, technology, engineering and math.

Across California and the country, there are vital signs of the myriad of opportunities to jump-start STEM education and job creation; now it's a matter of working together to ensure the next few years are ones of change.

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