Tech Training Must Reach Into Primary Grades

Tech Training Must Reach Into Primary Grades

By Gail Repsher Emery, Staff Writer

Efforts to create a skilled work force should begin in the primary grades, advocates said recently at a forum in Washington promoting technology education in primary and secondary schools.

By middle school, kids must be convinced that technology careers are cool and that they, too, are smart enough to work with computers, industry and government representatives and educators said at the TechiesDay Workforce Development Summit at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The summit was one of many TechiesDay events held Oct. 3 nationwide.

"We need to do a better job of engaging students at a very young age," said Secretary of Commerce Norman Mineta.

"Unfortunately, in many of our schools, math and science is looked upon in the early grades as almost like an extra. By the time students begin to learn about the sciences, some of their natural curiosity is gone," said Mineta, a former California congressman and former vice president of special business initiatives at systems integrator Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md.

According to the Office of Technology Policy at the Commerce Department, there will be nearly 4 million information technology jobs in 2008. Filling all those jobs will be tough, technology education advocates said, because students aren't pursuing math and science courses.

Between 1987 and 1997, the number of bachelor's degrees in mathematics earned in the United States decreased 21 percent, the number of computer science degrees dropped 37 percent, and the number of electrical engineering degrees dropped 45 percent, Mineta said.

"We don't seem to be able to interest people in those professions," he said. "Most people say it's ... the failure of math and science education in those early grades. Many students who should have an interest ... choose not to do so."

Government and industry are taking steps to remedy the situation. Last month the Commerce Department and the Nation-al Association of Manufacturers in Washington launched an initiative to show young people how learning math and science today can lead to rewarding high-tech careers tomorrow. Called Get Tech, the initiative uses a Web site (, public service television ads and classroom materials to promote science and engineering ca-reers to mid- dle school students.

"Studies show that middle school is when students start to consider future jobs," Mineta said in unveiling Get Tech. "Unfortunately, not enough 12- and 13-year-olds are thinking about science and engineering. ... It is time for that to change, and I hope this campaign will start to change it."

TechiesDay and Get Tech are steps in the right direction, but much remains to be done, government officials said.

Kids need more than information and classroom instruction, Mineta said. They also need exposure to real-life tech professionals and the work they do.

"We aren't going to get young people involved in technology careers without business participation," he said.

Linda Roberts, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the Education Department, also said it's time for industry to get more involved in the schools.

"You can bring new [technology] workers into the country [with H1-B visas]," she said, "but what you really need to do is reach fourth graders so they are ready when you need them later."

Participants in the summit's roundtable on creating a 21st century work force said the corporate sector should provide training and mentoring to students alongside their teachers.

"One-on-one mentoring and job shadowing seem to be the most effective," said Kelly Carnes, assistant secretary for technology policy at the Commerce Department.

Business leaders also should know that kids aren't motivated by flashiness. "No celebrities ? they need real-world models," she said. "And most kids seem to be motivated by public interest factors, not money."

Peter Joyce, work-force development manager at networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., said the business community can fill the void between classroom learning and the working world by offering career presentations in schools, job shadowing and internships.

"That's just where business can step in ? giving students exposure and the ability to transfer their skills," said Joyce, a former science teacher. "When they're set up as a sequence of opportunities, I think you get a real employable person at the other end of the line."

Randy Dove, another TechiesDay participant, said the internship idea "is right on."

"That's how I got my first job. What distinguished me from all the other people was that I spent two summers working as an intern," he said.

Dove, executive director of government relations for systems integrator Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Plano, Texas, works to educate young students about careers in science and technology through the Jason Project in Mystic, Conn.

The project, designed to interest students in science careers and help teachers improve their instruction in grades four through nine, was founded in 1989 by Robert Ballard, the scientist who discovered the wreck of the RMS Titanic.

The project is delivered via print, videos, the Internet and live satellite broadcasts. A small group of students is chosen to go on each Jason exploration, where they work with top scientists to solve problems. EDS provides system integration services, bringing the explorations from far-flung locales such as the Galapagos Islands, Hawaii and Iceland to thousands of students in their classrooms.

"One of the reasons we do it is we are worried about the work force," Dove said. "Kids are much more excited about technology and science after they've been though the experience. They see what the possibilities are."

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