It's the jumper cables to America's dead battery, they say, the lighter fluid to a cooling economy.
STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math — is being touted by lawmakers and business people as the key to future job creation and international competitiveness.
In Florida, the pressure is on to push more kids into STEM. This session, lawmakers are considering a bill that would reward schools when students graduate with more math and science credits than currently required.
But as campuses move to aggressively bulk up their STEM programs, they are grappling with a perpetual question in K-12 education:
How to pay for it?
Schools are shifting resources, scrambling for grants and trying to secure willing business partners. Last week, the presidents of the University of Florida and Florida State University suggested charging STEM students higher tuition.
Amid sharp budget cuts, the hunt for dollars could put some schools ahead of the pack — and others way behind.
"Science and technology are very expensive," said Larry Plank, director of the Hillsborough County School District's K-12 STEM education, whose job it is to find those dollars.
This year, Hillsborough pulled together $835,740 specifically for STEM. The dollars came from a federal grant and organizations such as Lego Education Smart Schools and the Helios Education Foundation, district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.
Over the last two years, the district has spent roughly $330,000 to help keep Middleton High equipped with state-of-the-art STEM offerings.
Pinellas County's Countryside High School started its new Institute for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program this fall with 44 ninth-graders.
The district allocated $220,000 for iPads, SMART boards, professional development and more at the Clearwater school in the first year. But when teachers went to check out biotechnology programs elsewhere, they knew the school had some work to do.
"Any of our labs that we have in the school right now do not meet the needs of a biotech lab," said Cindy Saginario, assistant principal who oversees the ISTEM program.
Next year, Pinellas expects to spend $20,000 to $30,000 in federal grant money on a laboratory redesign, according to Bill Lawrence, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction. That's in addition to about $12,000 for instructional materials and other expenses such as teacher training.
Dan McFarland has long advocated for more STEM courses in Florida's high schools. "Do kids need STEM courses in order to compete in the workplace of tomorrow? Almost certainly," said McFarland, high school science supervisor for Hillsborough County. "We've only been saying that for 15 years."
Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools
Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
He and other supporters are hopeful that a bill by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, will take schools in that direction after years of what they consider rhetoric without action.
Gaetz has proposed giving high schools bonus points in the state grading system, based on the percentage of students who earn credits in math and science courses that are more advanced than those mandated for a diploma.
"With 60 percent of jobs in Florida requiring STEM skills and only 17 percent of the college degrees being granted by our state universities in STEM fields, we need to do a better job to allow high school students to pursue higher level STEM coursework," said Gaetz, a former Okaloosa superintendent.
Mark Rosenberg, president at Florida International University, said that with STEM at the forefront, the university has worked hand-in-hand with the Miami-Dade school district to bulk up dual-enrollment courses for high school students seeking college credit. The program has grown from 500 course enrollments in 2010 to more than 3,000 now.
Part of the program's strength is that many of those dual enrollment courses are offered inside traditional classrooms at the local high school site, he said.
"Here's the challenge," Rosenberg said, "in the science area, many of our high schools are not outfitted with laboratories for college level courses."
Once STEM students arrive at a state college, they could pay more than students in other disciplines.
"If you look at return on investment after graduation, look at the pent-up demand for STEM hires, you can make a good case that since that program costs more you ought to have a (higher) tuition for those programs," University of Florida president Bernie Machen told a House Education Committee last week.
James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition in Washington, D.C., said that when educators and policymakers consider the costs involved in implementing stronger math, science and technology courses, they should consider the payoff in reducing unemployment and encouraging innovation.
At the same time, Brown argued, the strongest STEM programs don't necessarily require a hefty financial public investment in facilities and equipment. The number one ingredient, he said, is strong teachers able to inspire the scientists and engineers of tomorrow.
Brown suggested that some of the very best STEM programs exist in places that you wouldn't expect, largely because of a strong, creative teacher who can look beyond limitations.
"The minimum requirement for doing hands-on science is running water," he said. Still, "you'd be surprised how many schools don't have running water in their classrooms."
Times correspondent Sherri Ackerman and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.