On Thursday, an ad campaign to boost student interest in math, science and technology, worth $2.5 million was announced by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.
Private businesses are paying for the ad campaign which includes a series of TV commercials and billboards across the state delivering the message that Utah businesses need more tech and math-savvy workers to fill today's jobs. Herbert says it is part of a larger effort to equip the state's future workers with the skills needed to compete in a high-tech world.
"We need more scientists. We need more technicians. We need more engineers," the governor told about 100 fifth- and sixth-graders in a school gymnasium at science-focused public school Neil Armstrong Academy.
Legislators were asked by the governor to set aside $4.5 million in state funds for science, technology, and math programs for Utah students on Wednesday evening during his State of the State address. The legislature poured $10 million toward school tech initiatives in 2013, in part to fund a center tasked with developing new math lessons. The key tools in reaching the state's goal of two-thirds of Utah residents earning some kind of secondary degree by 2020 is equipping students with digital classrooms and better science lessons according to Herbert. A broad range of certificates, from mechanic's licenses to advanced engineering degrees are included in that goal.
Cries from the software and medical industries, whose leaders say they will soon need more workers with at least a basic understanding of computer science and a strong background in mathematics and logic are echoed by the initiative. However, critics say that too much focus on computer-related fields could deprive students reading and writing skills and could neglect school issues that may soon need urgent care.
According to a 2013 report from the Georgia Tech Research Institute, Utah ranks in the middle of the pack nationally for its number of science, technology, and math initiatives. A separate report from the Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America estimates that Utah will have about 100,000 jobs in those fields by 2018.
As Annie Knox of Daily Herald reports, trying to get students more digital tablets is included in part of the push to improve math and science performance. Republican Sen. Howard Stephenson, who chairs the committee tasked with divvying up state dollars for public schools, said that currently, most schools have just a few to pass around.
Deon Turley, the education commissioner for the Utah Parent Teacher Association, said that more emphasis on new ways to teach math and science to youngsters could prevent students from dropping out of high school down the road.
"If they struggle with math and science in their early years, they think, âI'm never gonna catch up. Why do this? I'm not going to graduate'. And they drop out of school," she said.
Urging for caution from focusing too much on technology, Democrat Sen. Patricia Jones praised the governor for prioritizing education. Other issues are mounting, including recruiting more teachers, funding the arts and hiring more school counselors to monitor students' mental health. Additionally, as she noted, others want to pursue studies outside the tech realm.
"I know that it's in the future," she said. "But I think it's limiting when we only focus on STEM," referring to science, technology, engineering and math.