Surrounded by STEM leaders and advocates, we are spending the day at the Microsoft Conference Center for the Washington STEM Summit. The day is all about answering “Why STEM? Why now? for Washington state and, hopefully, for the nation. The Washington STEM summit is all about inspiration, innovation, implementation and passion for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Ifrah Abshir. Setting the tone for the day, student Ifrah Abshir from Rainier Beach High School embodies what all the attendees of the Washington STEM summit want for every student- an engaged and invested in STEM learner. Ifrah has known since 8th grade that she wanted to be a doctor. On entering high school, she decided take computer science- which started off with two months of frustration and failure. But after one programming project and a dedicated computer science teacher, everything changed and Ifrah fell in love with programming. Now, Ifrah not only wants to be a doctor, but one who programs and uses new technology to solve medical problems and someday will  make people better who could not have been cured without her expertise in the STEM fields.

Asking the Questions. Moderated by Hanson Hosein of University of Washington, a panel with Scott Keeney from nLight (a successful and growing tech company in Clark County), Dr. Elson S. Floyd of Washington State University and Dr. Susan Enfield, Superintendent of Highline of Public Schools sat down together to address STEM Innovation and frame the day’s direction. Together, the three represented the full range of the system, from early ed and K-12 to Higher Ed and, finally, the STEM career field.

STEM in K-12 Classrooms. Today’s education system now has the responsibility to show students in STEM related classes, how they are going to use these skills later and what doors these skills will open up for them. Dr. Susan Enfield also wants parents to know the fields that exist and the wide range of opportunities and how to prepare students to get those jobs. Internships for all high school students at Highline public schools are helping provide this knowledge for students and parents. Placing students in internships is not something that has been done in years past and is also not necessarily easy. Therefore, Highline has recently applied for a grant to fund the position that can work on matching internships, and internships that are matched to their interests.

Nobody loves learning more than a 4 or 5 year old and the fire needs to be lit in preK when they are sponges and fascinated by the world. Dr. Enfield believes engineers and entrepreneurs are born in the kindergarten classroom. For STEM education to truly improve, we need to invest in the early education and focus on the quality of that learning. Quality STEM opportunities need to hook those students when they really love learning or else everything else will just be a bandaid.

Keep That Fire Burning. One important way to keeps students engaged in STEM learning is to bring mentoring into schools. There is a big population in the private sector of STEM fields who really want to help, volunteer and reach out to work in schools to support students in their learning. Scott Keeney recognizes building a mentorship program. Just a few years ago internships for high schoolers at  nLight were unheard of, but now they are recruiting students to come and learn to make lasers and semiconductors. Scott knows we can’t predict the jobs of the future so it’s not really about teaching specific skills but more about providing a very strong foundation in critical thinking through internships and mentoring.

Opening New Doors. STEM fields have always played an important part in the forming of our country’s identity. Unfortunately, it seems like this focus has slipped away. Dr. Elson Floyd, at Washington State University, believes STEM education needs to open doors for students to build our country’s positive identity and shared vision of where we are heading as a nation. We are obligated to stop playing the blame game and stop labeling students early on. Instead, we should always keep the doors open for opportunities for all our students throughout their entire time in the educational system. At Washington State, they are working to help students find the right entry point into STEM with the program Imagine Tomorrow at WSU.

Girls in STEM. The bookend for the morning session ended with the Senior Vice President of Danaher Corporation, Barbara Hulit, daughter of a teacher and STEM advocate herself. As a high level executive in the STEM world, she shared that she often looks around the meeting room and wonders where are the other women? Let’s take it as a great sign that today’s summit kicked off with the inspiring message from a incredible young woman, Ifrah Abshir who not only is engaged in STEM learning, but loving it and dedicated to finding success within the field. The message of the importance of STEM is without a doubt being amplified in the state of Washington, and will definitely send waves throughout the country.

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