When it comes to preparing its students to shine in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, or STEM, Florida delivers like a Third World country.
If that's insulting, so be it. Just look at the box to see Florida's back-of-the-line status. Science, technology, engineering or math — the four skill sets most in need by Florida businesses for their work forces now, and even more so in the future, are least likely to be produced in quantity or quality by the school system.
STEM, it seems, is Florida's weakest link. And it is a serious obstacle to the Sunshine State becoming a top competitor in the global economy.
The good news is more organized efforts are under way to try to fix the STEM gap.
For starters, a business roundtable is scheduled in Pinellas Park on Friday, Feb. 19, from 9 to 11 a.m. at the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Commission. Its goal? To hear from area businesses on what types of STEM skills they need in the coming years. The roundtable is part of a statewide series of meetings seeking business input, which ultimately will be distilled and presented to the state's education leaders. (More roundtable information can be found at stemflorida.net.)
Florida's education commissioner, Eric Smith, has given his blessing to this STEM effort.
"This is a critical issue for the business community," said Pam Tedesco, who will lead the Feb. 19 roundtable. She is part of a team that recently won funding from Workforce Florida to create a strategic plan to improve STEM education.
"If businesses tell us they need a work force to read blueprints, understand trigonometry and speak Mandarin to export products, then that is the information we will gather," Tedesco said.
Concern over the STEM gap arose in a January 2009 report by Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development arm.
In an interview, Enterprise Florida marketing chief Sena Black said the goal is to get education and business on the same page with STEM.
The trick, she said, is not simply to beef up college courses for business. Kids have to be identified and encouraged in the elementary and middle school years to start honing their scientific and math skills.
"That is the stage when we lose many of them," Black says. "But we also need to get into high schools where STEM can influence career choices, and into universities where STEM can be aligned with high-skill industry clusters."
After the Enterprise Florida recommendations, Workforce Florida stepped up. The state-created group monitors Florida's work force policies and provided funding for Tedesco's roundtable efforts. She will gather information under a statewide business steering committee known as STEMFlorida.
Let's hope all this bureaucracy doesn't get in the way of producing more and better STEM students. The sooner we stop acting like a Third World country, the better.
Here's a first step. Attend the Feb. 19 roundtable.
Contact Robert Trigaux at firstname.lastname@example.org.