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STEM challenge: Does Florida really want to be competitive?

They are, perhaps, the two most often repeated laments among Florida businesses and enlightened educators. 1. Florida's economy and educational system is not competitive on the demanding global stage. 2. Too few Florida students are learning enough 21st century skills in "STEM" — the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math — with sufficient rigor and hands-on experience to handle the key jobs businesses are clamoring to fill. Listen to the blunt assessment from Paul Woods, co-founder of international biofuels company Algenol in southwest Florida's Bonita Springs. Woods hires around the world. And Florida students, he says, do not compare with the employees he hires. "I can tell you the state of Florida is not even close to mediocre," he told a conference this past week on the state's work force skills. "I think we have to stop being defensive and take a hard look." Hmm. An honest man.

So, what's preventing Florida from declaring a "state of economic emergency" and instituting well-crafted STEM programs and career academies across the state?

Not one thing. Except for bureaucracy. Inertia. Old thinking. Naysayers. Cynics. Misplaced pride. Lack of funding. Lack of imagination. An absence of leadership. And, to be sure, a profound lack of will.

Other than that, Florida's ready for takeoff.

If I sound frustrated, you better believe it. I spent several eye-opening hours this past week at the Academy of Engineering at East Lake High School in northeast Pinellas County. About 600 students — roughly a quarter of the high school's population — attend the engineering-driven program at East Lake. Students are accepted by lottery, so hundreds who want to attend but are not chosen end up on a waiting list.

This academy tucked within a public high school exists thanks to a few out-of-the-box risk-takers. Ex-businessman Paul Wahnish got the idea years ago to start an engineering academy at East Lake. He won the backing of a school principal with some backbone who thankfully understood risk-taking. Wahnish ultimately funded the academy by creating a nonprofit foundation, without being subject to the ad nauseam slashings of the county's public school budget.

The goal of Wahnish and backers that include former Pasco County School Board member Kathryn Starkey is to spread STEM-focused career academies like East Lake's engineering program statewide.

Easier said than done. Few bureaucracies are as impenetrable and emotional as public education.

That's apparently not stopping STEM programs elsewhere in the country.

The best 208 high schools for STEM include 40 in California and 30 in New York. Florida has eight, ranking the state No. 7 nationwide, according to U.S. News & World Report, which recently unveiled its first ranking of the best high schools for math and science.

None of those eight high schools is in the Tampa Bay area. .) To be fair, many high schools in places like Northern California boast students whose parents work in places like Silicon Valley. That can be quite an advantage.

A statewide "strategic plan" for STEM issued in April lays out how far Florida must come from behind. Its sober assessment was issued by the Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, created by the Florida Legislature in 2007 and housed at Florida State University.

"Currently, students in Florida perform below students in many other states and nations on science and mathematics assessments," the plan states. "As students in Florida progress through our public schools from elementary to high school, their performance declines relative to that of their peers in other states and nations."

The report adds:

• Nearly half of the high school graduates entering Florida's community colleges require remediation in mathematics.

• Less than 25 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded through Florida's state university system in 2010 were in STEM fields. Yet the 10 highest-paying careers in Florida are in STEM fields.

• Industry leaders consistently report a shortage of qualified professionals to fill STEM positions.

A STEM summit conference will take place Oct. 25-26 at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry, also known as MOSI.

Speakers range from executives at companies like Jabil Circuit and the Nielsen Co., both big backers of the Academy of Engineering and STEM, to the Tampa Bay Partnership's Stuart Rogel, Florida University System chancellor Frank Brogan and Workforce Florida CEO Chris Hart. (For more information, visit

To paraphrase Woods, the CEO of the Florida firm Algenol: Come on, business and education folks, stop being defensive and take a hard look.

Florida's work force in the making is not ready for prime time.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

An academy born of engineering passion, strong business ties

Former businessman and mechanical engineer Paul Wahnish got the Academy of Engineering up and running at East Lake High School in north Pinellas County by funding it through money raised via a nonprofit in Palm Harbor called the Career Technical Education Foundation.

Wahnish is also not shy about asking area companies that need workers with technical educations to help. He asked St. Petersburg electronics manufacturer Jabil Circuit, a company with close to 100,000 employees worldwide, how much it typically costs to train someone to handle manufacturing work. The price tag topped $40,000.

Support the engineering academy with $10,000 a year for four years, Wahnish countered. I'll give you a pool of potential workers, he said, with the kinds of engineering skills you're looking for. Jabil agreed. Other companies, including Nielsen in Oldsmar and Coastal Caisson in Odessa, are also on board.

The academy, with 600 students chosen by lottery (and hundreds on the waiting list), also gets students out working (usually for decent wages) in area companies that agree to help supplement the academy's in-school work with hands-on experience. The arrangement is clever. Kelly Services, a temp staffing company, handles the student job placements, easing any concerns of the companies bringing younger workers into the workplace for career training.

The bottom line? Academy students are taught by the likes of Patrick Macaraeg, himself a former Raytheon engineer. Graduates leave the high school program with actual technical certifications and solid work experience at name companies — two huge keys to making successful leaps into the technology job market.

The board of directors of Wahnish's nonprofit foundation reads like a who's who of U.S. engineering and innovation, from SRI International CEO Curtis Carlson to Segway inventor Dean Kamen.

Wahnish says more companies need to step up and open their wallets if they believe in supporting STEM projects across the state and country. Don't expect rapidly shrinking public funding to be there.

Florida schools

are not STEM leaders

Of 208 high schools nationwide considered STEM leaders, Florida is home to only eight, or less than 4 percent. None is in the Tampa Bay area.

The top 10 states with the most high schools in the rankings:

1. California 40 schools

2. New York 30

3. Illinois 15

4. Massachusetts 13

4. Texas 13

6. New Jersey 11

7. Florida 8

8. North Carolina 7

9. Maryland 6

9. Virginia 6

9. Washington 6

Source: U.S. News & World Report

STEM challenge: Does Florida really want to be competitive? 10/08/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 7, 2011 7:13pm]
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