STEM on the right Roadmap in Colorado

Rebecca Kantor, dean of the School of Education & Human Development, leads discussion on improving STEM education

November 5, 2014

CU Denver School of Education Dean Rebecca Kantor leads a panel discussion on STEM education

In just three years, 67 percent of all jobs in Colorado will require some form of post-secondary education, ranking the state fifth nationally in terms of workforce requirements.

That was one of the statistics that Rebecca Kantor, Ed.D., dean of the CU Denver School of Education & Human Development, used to illustrate the challenges facing Colorado educators as they continue developing innovative approaches to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Kantor moderated a panel discussion on “Workforce Development: Fueling Colorado’s Innovation Economy” at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science on Oct. 31.

Kantor said the shifting nature of the economy and the state’s fast growth in technology fields makes it imperative for Colorado to increase access to quality STEM education for all students. “By failing to prepare our youth, particularly our low-income and minority youth, we could jeopardize the future of our young people and our economy,” she said.

Panel members were Kathy Norton, principal of Arvada High School; Joe Saboe, director of Career and Technical Education Pathways, Denver Public Schools; Matt Smith, vice president of engineering and IT, United Launch Alliance; and Alejandra Terrazas, student body president of Arvada High School. Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia delivered the keynote.

Rebecca Kantor, far right, dean of the School of Education & Human Development, moderates a panel discussion on STEM education. Pictured from left are Kathy Norton, Arvada High School principal; Matt Smith, of United Launch Alliance; and Joe Saboe, of Denver Public Schools.

Despite the challenges, Kantor said, the state is making headway with the new Colorado STEM Education Roadmap that’s designed to define a clear path to growing local talent that drives innovation. She noted that the state is also creating effective public-private partnerships, including the Colorado Education Initiative’s Legacy Schools program. Legacy gives students like Terrazas access to mentors who show how classroom lessons have real-world applications.

In all of these efforts, the lieutenant governor said, the state needs to better link low-income and minority students to STEM education and careers. Garcia said he wanted to study engineering at CU-Boulder, but he realized too late that he wasn’t prepared enough in STEM disciplines to succeed at the college level. He went on to a business degree from CU-Boulder as well as a juris doctorate from Harvard Law School.

“We need to make sure that every one of our kids—whatever their zip code, language they speak at home, educational accomplishments of their parents—all have the opportunity to become well-educated in STEM fields,” Garcia said. “Right now, we don’t have that level of equity across our state.”

Garcia said 97 percent of schools in Colorado have eighth-grade science labs, but one in four of schools with the highest percentage of minority students have no science labs. The fast-growing Latino population fills less than 6 percent of STEM jobs, he said, while women hold less than one-third of STEM positions.

Smith said his company would prefer to hire its workforce from within Colorado, but currently, United Launch Alliance recruits at least 50 percent of its employees from out of state. “We have a need for educated, work-ready students,” he said.

Kantor, who started her career in early childhood education, said she is pleased to see that the Colorado STEM Education Roadmap makes STEM a priority in the early grades. The roadmap emphasizes STEM education from preschool through K-12 and into postsecondary education.

“Early childhood is absolutely the right time to be thinking about science, math and technology,” Kantor said. “What we need to do is learn how to listen and watch that child at work so we can build on, and not interfere with, those natural (STEM) capacities.”

She noted that the School of Education & Human Development is “doing some wonderful things” in the area of STEM. One example is the Learning Assistants (LAs) program where strong academic STEM majors are identified during their sophomore year and then trained to assist faculty members who teach large classes. The students, in the role of LAs, help peers understand the material through problem-based exercises.

“We have 15 to 20 percent of them choosing to stay in the field of science education,” said Kantor, noting that LAs receive a stipend for their work. “It’s a really good program.”

The education panel was the first in a series of four discussions hosted by the Denver Business Journal and the Colorado Education Initiative.