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Florida lawmakers wrestle with ways to fix STEM-degree shortage

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott and top lawmakers want universities to find ways to produce more science and technology graduates to fill higher-paying jobs.

But in every year but one for the past decade, public universities have increased the number of those highly sought graduates. In fact, the number of science and technology graduates — about 12,000 in 2010 — is up 48 percent since 2001.

They just might not be in the right fields, or growing fast enough. In a key area — computer technology — bachelor's degrees have tumbled in the past six years. And even with the overall increases, the share of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, grads remains just one-fifth of the total bachelor's degrees awarded.

"We're not doing as well as we could. We are doing a lot," said University of South Florida Provost Ralph Wilcox.

Proposals before the Legislature would attempt to change that, given projections by the state that 120,000 more jobs in STEM fields will be created by 2018.

Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has authored a bill that shifts $15 million in current funding for universities to help pay for the schools with the five top technology programs. SB 1366 also allows universities to use a portion of tuition to give financial aid to students in those programs. It passed its first hearing by a 5-0 vote last week.

Gaetz said he focused on computer technology based on both industry interest and a decline in the number of graduates. After hovering around 1,200 graduates annually until 2004, state universities produced 700 degrees in 2010, a 40 percent drop. Economists project computer-related jobs will drive STEM demand during the next decade.

"It's been on a precipitous decline over the last 10 years in Florida. Every industry in Florida is interested in workers with IT skills," Gaetz said.

Educators at USF say the number of computer science students is rising already, a fact lost because graduation data lags behind realities in today's classrooms.

In 2006, 95 students entered the computer science program, said Rafael Perez, an associate dean and professor of computer science at USF. This year, 165 did.

Then there's a question of whether the state should even focus funding toward computer education.

Sen. Evelyn Lynn, who oversees a higher education spending committee, and House Education Chairman Bill Proctor said they lean toward engineers as the biggest long-term need.

At USF, Wilcox said demand for STEM degrees coincides with industry demands for critical thinking skills typically found in liberal arts.

"I can't find anyone who can tell me exactly what we need in STEM, and in what field," said Proctor, R-St. Augustine. "Now … I think it is fair to say that we probably have a shortage of engineers. Now, what type of engineers, I don't know yet."

USF senior Matthew Gil said he first pursued mechanical engineering, but it wasn't the right fit. He switched to mass communications and political science. "The focus on the STEM programs are good for the country," Gil said. "But, you know, you have people like me who tried going into the STEM field and it wasn't for us."

Ultimately, the answer at USF and elsewhere could rely on lawmakers' ability to adequately fund universities, where state support has fallen despite tuition hikes.

"Definitely, the increase in funding will help both our ability to enroll and serve more students," Perez said.

Times/Herald staff writer Brittany Alana Davis contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@tampabay.com.

Florida lawmakers wrestle with ways to fix STEM-degree shortage 01/31/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 31, 2012 10:50pm]
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