STEM academies needed now
GOV. LINDA Lingle's Innovation Initiatives being considered by the state Legislature have received strong public support and thoughtful discussion.
Her proposals are at a key juncture in the legislative process. Now is the time for decisive action by our lawmakers.
These initiatives take a critical step toward improving the quality of life for all Hawaii's residents -- achieving a rising standard of living, economic diversification and sustainability, while preserving the unique Hawaii that we all love.
This means focusing on education -- what, how and when we learn.
In terms of what we learn, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills not only enable us to produce more engineers and technicians, but are the basic skills needed in today's knowledge-based, technology-intensive global economy. The United States annually produces about 137,000 engineers with at least a bachelor's degree, while China produces 352,000. Studies show that those exposed to STEM skills develop analytical and problem-solving abilities, enabling them to earn higher wages and have more career and job opportunities.
As to how we learn, today's young people are raised in an environment with visual, hands-on and "connected" experiences. Many programs exist in Hawaii, such as robotics, Botball, underwater unmanned vehicles and Project East, that show young people how interesting, challenging and relevant math and science can be. These programs need to be expanded.
When we learn also is vital. We need to spark creativity and entrepreneurship in our young people when they are in elementary school and sustain this through middle and high school to college and beyond.
The STEM academies proposal being considered in the Legislature is one proven pathway. In the elementary and middle school levels, Fostering Inspiration & Relevance through Science & Technology academies will expose students to STEM through fun-science and team-science projects such as robotics.
Students in FIRST academies can graduate into HiEST (Hawaii Excellence in Science & Technology) academies in high school, combining project-based learning with a standards-based science and math curriculum.
To complete this integrated pipeline, the governor also proposed scholarships to any university in Hawaii for those students completing the STEM pathway.
STEM academies complement the existing Department of Education academic program without taxing resources of existing schools. This program is designed to serve the needs of all students; those who are standard learners and those with learning challenges. It gives students the option to pursue fields they might not otherwise consider. Even if students do not end up as engineers or technicians, they will be more valuable employees and citizens by having better problem-solving and teamwork skills.
STEM learning has the power to inspire the innate passion, curiosity and intelligence of Hawaii's young people, and to unleash their capacity to innovate, succeed and compete with anyone, anywhere in the global economy.
We have the opportunity this year to make critical choices. Neither our nation nor our state has the luxury of time to make those choices. The time is now.
Theodore E. Liu is the director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism.