Texas is not a state that likes to be second place in anything.
So, when a 2017 Forbes study ranked Texas as the No. 2 state in the country for business, there was no doubt a fair amount of state pride in surpassing 48 other state economies, but also probably for many Texans a nagging question: Why not No. 1?
According to Forbes, at least, it’s a lack of education in our workforce.
“One of the only things holding Texas back is the education rate among its labor supply,” Forbes found. “Only 83 percent of adults have a high school degree, which is second lowest among the states.”
At Harmony Public Schools — an open enrollment charter school offering a free public education to Texas students at schools statewide — we take pride in our 98 percent graduation rate among our seniors.
But we also understand that it’s not enough just to send our students out into the “real world” with a piece of paper. It is crucial for Texas schools to send our students out into the real world with real-world skills.
In all modern economies — but especially in a state as reliant on industries such as energy, health, transportation, manufacturing, agriculture and technology — those real-world skills must include a solid foundation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.
Earlier this year, the business-focused social networking giant LinkedIn awarded STEM-related skills all 10 spots on its annual Top 10 ranking of most in-demand job skills.
Unsurprisingly, tech-related skills were a major force on the list. Those skills will be greatly needed in Texas tech hubs like Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, where tech-job growth is expected to be paced only by tech-job earning potential, both reflections of larger national trends, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Texas needs STEM workers away from the computer monitors, too. They’re needed in shipping and logistics hubs along the border and on the Gulf Coast; in our world-class healthcare centers and medical research facilities in San Antonio and Houston; in our West Texas oil fields and wind farms; and on our farms and ranches statewide, which still provide jobs for one in seven Texans.
STEM professionals were crucial in pulling our national economy out of the most recent recession, which officially ended in 2009. In roughly the six years following the Great Recession, STEM jobs grew at double the rate of all other jobs — 10.5 percent vs. 5.2 percent — according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Texas was statistically even better, growing STEM jobs by 15.6 percent in the same time span.
Workers in those STEM jobs reaped the benefits. Nationally, STEM workers today earn almost double the average annual salary of non-STEM workers. Closer to home, the University of Texas found that four of its five degree programs for top salary after graduation came from STEM fields: architecture and engineering (1); computer, statistics and mathematics (2); health (3) and physical sciences (5).
But before STEM can show up in any of those industries, it must show up in our classrooms. That’s why at Harmony Public Schools across Texas we have built our nationally-recognized curriculum around project-based STEM learning.
For example, this year students at our Garland campus are engineering a working prosthetic hand in their 3D printing lab for a 7-year-old boy in their community with a rare birth defect that caused him to be born without several fingers. Tired of the bullying her son faced, his mother learned about our program by doing research online and reached out to one of our teachers. Soon, her son will have a new hand to try out during the piano lessons for which he recently signed up, and our students will have improved the life of someone in their own community while learning valuable STEM skills in the process.
In El Paso, our schools are working collaboratively with the U.S. Navy on an underwater robotics program that has become a template for similar programs across the state. The school now hosts an annual underwater robotics competition each year that draws competitors from all over Texas.
These are some of the many examples of how project-based STEM learning is being worked into our coursework. Even if these students choose to pursue career tracks outside of STEM, the lessons they learn here will transfer to whatever career paths they choose:
- Recognizing a need or opportunity;
- Setting a goal and creating a strategy to achieve it;
- Organizing a team and working collaboratively to accomplish tasks;
- Tracking results, accepting feedback and adapting future works;
- Seeing a project through to completion.
Whether a student goes on to become a novelist or neurosurgeon, those foundational skills will make the future they choose a brighter one.
And it will make Texas’ future brighter as well, because we as Texans will be able to look at each new generation of young leaders and know that we were able to provide them an education that was second to none.
Mr. Fatih Ay is a former public school teacher and principal, and is the current CEO of Harmony Public Schools, a Texas-wide charter public school system specializing in STEM education and character development.