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What is ahead for STEM education in 2022?

Iowa education leaders share their programs and plans for advancing STEM learning this year


As every job increasingly touches technology and other STEM areas, business and education leaders say 2022 will be all about continuing the mission to create more access and opportunity to education in STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and math. There is work to be done to continue integrating the broad set of STEM skills both in and outside of the classroom, they say.


Pat Barnes, senior global program officer of STEM education and equity at Deere & Co., said it is difficult to find workers with the required “deep technical knowledge” due to both a limited supply of graduates and increased competition for workers.


At MidAmerican Energy Co., Kathryn Kunert, vice president of economic connections and integration, said the utility company faces similar workforce issues, citing the top challenge of finding workers who want to both live and work in rural areas.


“You really have to provide them with opportunities, potentially in addition to their jobs,” Kunert said. “They’re much more interested in having the value-added proposition provided to them as well.”


She said recruiting efforts in rural Iowa are established, but “there are some instances where it’s still in its infancy.” For MidAmerican, those measures are doing outreach to schools and families to share available career opportunities in STEM fields, regardless of whether a student plans to obtain a four-year degree. 


“When you partner and you marry up the education and the STEM aspects to the business and let them know that there are opportunities right there in their own backyard and what that means and what they can do for a career … that’s what I think we have to continue to work on [is connecting] those opportunities with students and the educators.”


Barnes said ensuring equal access to Iowa’s STEM education resources for all students is Iowa’s “biggest opportunity” for improvement in the near future. The Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, of which Barnes and Kunert are members, released recommendations from its diversity, equity and inclusion work group in April 2021. He said the group is working to implement the recommendations within the council’s programming and they presented at the council’s annual meeting in January.


Compared with 10 years ago, awareness and support of STEM education in Iowa has increased significantly, with help from the collaborations between industry, nonprofits and government, Barnes said. But he said “if we’re really serious about moving the needle on supporting and increasing the [talent] pipeline,” companies need to consider both short- and long-term investments in STEM efforts.


Pi515 Founder and Executive Director Nancy Mwirotsi is focusing on long-term plans this year, because she said to be ready to meet the job demands of the 2030s, preparation must start in 2022. The Pi515 program offers underserved youths mentorship and teaching in computer science and related fields.


At the end of 2020, there were 1.4 million open computer science jobs nationwide and only 400,000 graduates available to fill them, according to an analysis from Daxx, a software development and technology consulting service provider. 


Projections from Korn Ferry, a global organizational consulting firm, estimate that by 2030 there will be 4.3 million global job openings in the technology, media and telecommunication fields and 7.9 million open jobs in the manufacturing sector. Daxx also reports that a sustained shortage of software developers could result in an annual loss of $162 billion for the U.S. in unrealized output.


Mwirotsi said Iowa needs to look at this kind of data for the state because it will “really shape the direction of what we’re going to do.” Even though the workforce is adaptable, she said STEM curricula and strategies have to be devised and planned in advance with support from sustained, intentional efforts.


“[STEM education] is a process. It is a really long process,” Mwirotsi said. 


As the new year gets started, the Business Record asked Mwirotsi and other STEM education leaders about their priorities for 2022.


Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council

With a $700,000 special appropriation from the Legislature granted last year, the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council created the STEM BEST H.D. (High Demand) program. It is an expansion of STEM BEST, which provides up to $25,000 grants for schools and businesses to partner and create curricula or projects that integrate STEM workforce skills. The new H.D. program has the same goal of the original program but will target the following industries identified as experiencing an increased demand for workers: computer science, information technology, health professions and advanced manufacturing. 


STEM BEST Program Director Tanya Hunt said that the H.D. program also differs in several other ways. 


It lowers the cost-sharing requirement for applicants and offers a potentially higher award amount — applicants can receive grants of up to $40,000. School districts will also have a year and a half to use funds awarded through STEM BEST H.D., whereas STEM BEST grant recipients have about 10 months to use their funding.


“We award in February 2022, and then [applicants are] able to utilize those awards through August 2023, which to me is even better than the money,” Hunt said. “Having that time is going to afford really great opportunities for those that are awarded.”


With every state agency, including the STEM council, working to address workforce shortages, Jeff Weld, executive director of the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, said STEM BEST is an “arrow in the quiver,” but teachers are at the center of the effort as they take on the additional role as workforce developers.


“This is a new hat for teachers to try and wear, and STEM BEST is an answer to them when they say, ‘How am I supposed to help promote career awareness?’” Weld said.


Long-term, Weld said the hope is that one day STEM BEST grants “aren’t needed because every teacher, in every school, in every community in the state is already by nature incorporating career advancement, career awareness and collaboration with local community employers into the school day.”


Since STEM BEST started in 2014, 80 programs have been launched across the state. More than 40 proposals were submitted for the 2022 H.D. program, and awards will be announced in mid-February. Applications for 2022 STEM BEST grants open on March 14. 

K-12 computer science course requirements

Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council and Iowa Department of Education

Gov. Kim Reynolds in 2020 proposed a path to require computer science curricula in Iowa’s 327 school districts and 116 accredited private schools. The Legislature passed the bill, and the initiative will hit its first checkpoint on July 1 when high schools must have a plan to start offering at least a half-unit computer science course in the 2022-23 school year.


The law requires that the instruction be “high quality,” meaning it aligns with Iowa’s computer science standards. Heather Doe, communications director for the Iowa Department of Education, wrote in an email that Iowa’s computer science standards come from the Computer Science Teacher Association and were adopted by Iowa’s education department in June 2018.


Doe wrote that a high-quality computer science course in Iowa may cover “computing systems, management information systems, programming, information support and services and courses in advanced placement computer science.” Introductory-level courses do not qualify.


Some high schools already meet the July requirement. According to the 2021 Condition of Education Report, 10.1% of Iowa public high school students graduating in 2021 took a high-quality computer science course.


Despite the definitions of high-quality computer science courses, Weld said those in the education community, from parents to teachers, are still unclear on what it means to have a high-quality course.


“I don’t think it’s well known what everybody means by high-quality computer science and what it means to say high-quality computer science teacher preparation,” Weld said. “There’s a lot of variance across what’s being taught, and how it’s being taught and by whom it’s being taught because that high-quality [definition] is so nebulous.”


Weld said this is one reason why the governor’s Computer Science Work Group, which was active from December 2020 to June 2021, recommended forming an ongoing work group in its report to the Legislature. 


Weld, who co-chaired the work group, said the main theme across its recommendations was “aggregating good things we know are happening in pockets of the state and [making] sure everybody has access to them.” The following are the top three recommendations from the work group’s report, “Building on Iowa’s Vision for Computer Science Education”:


Create an ongoing Computer Science Work Group. This group would oversee the delivery of quality professional development for computer science teachers and curate resources for educators as they create computer science curricula. Making a computer science endorsement a “critical and affordable credential” for secondary teachers was also recommended.


Bridge any computer science gaps in schools and communities. The work group recommended expanding computer science education to underserved students by training all kindergarten through eighth grade teachers to integrate the subject in their classrooms and by preparing technology teachers and specialists working in schools to teach computer science courses.


Put a work-based learning coordinator in each school district. The addition of this role would expand access to work-based learning options and “include how computer science is redefining virtually all occupations,” according to the report. Other recommendations are creating a playbook that facilitates collaboration between schools and businesses and providing additional financial incentives for employers to participate in work-based learning.


The work group’s recommendations are currently under review by the Iowa Department of Education, which will submit a computer science plan to the Legislature by July 1.

“Preparing youth for the future of work”


The theme for Pi515 in 2022 is “2030: Preparing youth for the future of work” because Mwirotsi said Generation Z is going to shape the digital economy, and the work to prepare them needs to start now.

Mwirotsi plans to put on several roundtables in 2022 to elevate the conversation about the needs for 2030 in both the technology and business communities.


With an eye on the long term, Mwirotsi said Pi515 is also shifting its focus to create more “intentional partnerships” with new businesses and communities.


Instead of local IT professionals coming to lead the Pi515 course at schools, Mwirotsi has reversed the model so students are being taught in the company’s offices.


“I want companies to let these kids go into their spaces,” she said. 


Pi515 has tested this new model with American Equity, and Principal Financial is the business partner for the current course, which runs through March. 


Mwirotsi said meeting the goal of adding five to 10 more business partners this year would allow Pi515 to offer the course to more students and in more areas of the state like Waterloo and Cedar Rapids. At the time of publication, one new company had agreed to partner with Pi515. 


She said the new model has received “tremendous” response from students and has helped with their engagement in the course. A new high school cohort is expected to start in September.


Pi515 is also hosting its second Girls’ Entrepreneurial Summit on April 28, where high school students will present the business ideas they’ve developed in the weeks before. They also participate in a pitch competition where the winner receives a cash prize courtesy of John Pappajohn.

Priority: DeltaV Code School

Cybersecurity Program


The New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative, or NewBoCo, in Cedar Rapids launched its DeltaV Code School in 2017 with a focus on lowering the barrier of entry to software development by providing “boot camp-style” courses for adults looking to change careers. In 20 weeks, NewBoCo Executive Director Aaron Horn said DeltaV could take someone “from knowing potentially nothing to being a junior-level full-stack developer.”


Since then, DeltaV has introduced other course tracks: digital marketing in 2019 and help desk and administration in 2020. A cybersecurity program is the most recent addition, announced in fall 2021.


As with the other courses, the motivation was to make an industry facing a high demand for workers accessible to anyone. Horn and others from NewBoCo spoke with local companies about the roles and skills they need, and he said they have built the DeltaV curriculum based on that feedback.


The first cohort of the 10-week cybersecurity program starts Feb. 7, and instructor Dan Tuuri said after graduation, students could take on jobs like a junior cybersecurity analyst or a help desk or policy review role.


“It’s going to be 10 weeks of education that really simulates what somebody at an entry-level security role would do,” Tuuri said. In order to stay on top of the “ever-evolving” challenges in cybersecurity, the curriculum will cover topics like artificial intelligence and cryptography and end with students responding to a 72-hour simulated cyberattack.


The way cyber risks touch every IT position makes awareness and literacy of cybersecurity risks a top need in STEM education, Tuuri said. He said the need for graduates to have fundamental cybersecurity knowledge is becoming as important as them having financial literacy. 

“Until we get to a point where we really have those conversations regularly, it’s hard to go beyond,” he said.


He thinks it’s possible DeltaV’s cybersecurity program could help create this awareness through “upskilling,” or training current IT professionals in emerging topics and digital skills that prepare them for roles as they evolve. A second iteration of the course is scheduled to begin Sept. 19.

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