JOHNSTOWN - For high school students a generation ago, the careers of the future seemed to involve the skills necessary for operating computers. Today, the hottest careers are more likely to focus on making the tiny internal parts that make them tick.
For jobs involving computer chips and nanotechnology, today's students need to have a strong understanding of math and science, accompanied by the fundamentals of engineering. Many area school districts have programs promoting these skill sets, each one charting its own course in terms of STEM education - Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
The Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Education Services offers its own technology program at its Career & Technical Center, and although it is only in its second year, HFM BOCES Superintendent Patrick Michel said he thinks area schools should work together to enhance and combine their STEM programs.
Senior technology students listen to engineering technology teacher Zachary Carrico talk about the phases of matter during class on Wednesday at HFM BOCES.
At the HFM BOCES Career & Tech Center on Wednesday, high school senior Josh Cost of Canajoharie works on building a robotic car that can react to its environment through programming and sensors. (The Leader-Herald/Levi Pascher)
"Having 14 districts doing their own thing with STEM is not cost-effective and will not create the numbers of students needed to fill the high-paying jobs the STEM fields have to offer," Michel said. "Right now in our region with over a 10 percent unemployment rate, we have many jobs left unfilled or employers scrambling to find employees because those who are unemployed do not have skills and training in math an science to fill these jobs."
Michel said STEM jobs are the fastest-growing employment sector, but the specialized STEM programs are not attracting enough students to fill those jobs in this region. He thinks the solution is regional.
"Our students' future depends on it, and this need will not be met by individual districts and their restricted budgets," Michel said. "The cost of the equipment needed to do this right cannot be sustained by any individual district. We need a united effort to produce the number of qualified students to take these high- paying jobs."
Michel said he believes this area should consider investing in a combined technology program and facility like the TEC-SMART facility in Malta.
According to the Ballston Spa Central School District website, during the 2011-2012 school year, the school district piloted an Early College High School program in collaboration with Hudson Valley Community College at its TEC-SMART facility in Malta, at the New York Energy Research and Development Authority's Saratoga Technology + Energy Park (STEP). This program has expanded in the 2012-13 school year to include students from throughout the Capital Region and includes coursework for both 11th- and 12th-graders.
The Clean Technologies & Sustainable Industries Early College High School, the website said, provides students with knowledge and skills necessary to make informed college and career decisions as they relate to the emerging technology fields. Students are dually enrolled in high school and college coursework with the potential of earning more than 22 college credits through HVCC.
"We are beginning to explore the possibility of doing a TEC-SMART Center here in this region," Michel said.
According to a state-by-state study on STEM conducted by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, New York state will need a total of 423,190 STEM workers by 2018, an increase of 385,140 from 2008.
The study states 93 percent of these jobs will require postsecondary education and training by 2018. It also projects that STEM jobs make up 4 percent of all jobs in the state, and 57 percent of those jobs will be in computer occupations by 2018.
As the Capital Region is becoming part of "America's second Silicon Valley," the demand for these types of skills is rising at a rapid pace.
With technology companies like Nano Tech in Albany and the expansion of GlobalFoundries in Malta, the students of this area will have the opportunity to find high-paying jobs near home and will not need to leave the area or the state as they might have in the past.
A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute casts some doubt on the demand for workers with high-tech skills, however. The study shows that information technology workers earn about the same today as they did 14 years ago, and only one of every two STEM college graduates is hired for a STEM job each year. The study also claims U.S. colleges and universities provide an ample supply of highly qualified STEM graduates already.
Both Michel and FMCC President Dustin Swanger rejected the findings of the EPI study, saying they don't necessarily apply to the local area.
"Traditional college programs are very threatened by STEM since it undermines the money they make on liberal arts programs," Michel said. "I work with businesses in this region almost on a daily basis, and I can tell you for a fact that there is a shortage of people to do advanced manufacturing and there is absolutely a shortage of engineering and science majors to fill the growing jobs in this field."
Swanger's take on the EPI study was similar, and he said it conflates STEM and IT jobs a little too liberally; information technology is not the only STEM-related career path. For instance, he said, nanotechnology is not an IT field, though it certainly is STEM-related.
"The research is sponsored by a liberal organization who, in my opinion, believes that college is getting too 'workforce' driven," Swanger said of the study. "Now, I don't want colleges, including community colleges, to become 'trade schools,' but everything that I'm hearing and reading [except for the EPI study] suggests that we're not preparing enough technical workers."
Program at BOCES
HFM BOCES already provides an engineering technology program that includes an agreement with Fulton-Montgomery Community College to allow students to obtain 15 credits, which is the equivalent to one college semester.
The college and BOCES worked together to develop the program under the Technological Education Pathways Partnership when it received a $600,000 National Science Foundation Grant for the program and equipment needed that is currently used at the college and shared with BOCES.
The two were able to develop a two-year CTE program based on STEM curricular units that starts when a student is in his or her junior year and takes the course on technology exploration. During the student's senior year, the focus is shifted to electronics and electrical systems.
The course covers a wide range of units within the STEM field, including: engineering technology, atomic nature of matter, engineering design process, electrical engineering, fiber communications, thermodynamics, semiconductor basics and nanotechnology.
BOCES and FM's shared equipment allows students direct access to equipment and labs that can't be purchased by individual school districts: a clean room, an atomic force microscope, electron and inspection microscopes, a 3-D printer, and advanced manufacturing and advanced electronics laboratories. The three microscopes are worth about $210,000, which is far too pricey for most school districts.
Students are not participating in this type of program as much as they should, Michel said.
"I think engineering and technology, and technology in general, is not something kids are automatically attracted to with the way we structured education today," Michel said. "We are much more focused on literacy than we are on math and science. We make literacy attractive and fun, whereas math and science are viewed by many students as a nasty thing to do."
BOCES Director of Career and Technical Education Jay DeTraglia said the program started last year for juniors and had four students from the surrounding districts participate. He said the enrollment increased this year, with six students in both the junior and senior programs, and he is expecting a significant increase in next year's enrollment as well.
"We have a tremendous opportunity in our region to focus on STEM but do it collaboratively," DeTraglia said. "Students right now will receive a certificate of completion if they complete our program and have the opportunity to earn a technical endorsement on their Regents diploma. A technical endorsement means they completed all of their Regents requirements at their home school and completed a technical assessment in their program here. The highest honor a student can receive is if they earn a Regents diploma with honors and a technical endorsement. It means they have done everything."
DeTraglia said the BOCES environment is different than the high school setting because it uses block scheduling, where students are in the class setting for more than two hours, though in the typical high school, a period is about 45 minutes.
He said the new program has the ability to have 20 students in each of the junior and senior classes and officials hope it can reach capacity as the program is better understood by the surrounding districts.
"It is a new program and new partnership, so part of it is us making sure there is an understanding and awareness of what the program is about and there is a promotional aspect on our part that needs to be solid," DeTraglia said.
DeTraglia said the districts pay tuition so their students can participate in the BOCES technology program, which is state aid-eligible and allows the district to get a large portion of the tuition reimbursed.
"This program is not open enrollment," DeTraglia said. "Students actually have to complete an application, and there are certain criteria that must be met. For example, the student must complete the algebra course and Regents exam. They also have to receive a letter of recommendation from their math teacher and be recommended by their guidance counselor."
While the program is not focused on one particular area, it allows students to explore a variety of fields within the spectrum of STEM programming, DeTraglia said.
"It's a bonus for kids because it gives them the opportunity to explore what is available," he said.
He said the program gives students a first look at potential careers with GlobalFoundries, Albany NanoTech and General Electric.
"The potential investment for each student can be much greater here," Engineering and Technology Teacher Zachary Carrico said this week. "We have the resources here to facilitate the needs and skills that these jobs are looking for."
He said clean room experience isn't just for students who want to work directly with computer chips; it is necessary for those in maintenance or material-handler jobs in the chip industry.
Senior students in the program said Wednesday they think the class time and hands-on experience they receive every day in the course couldn't be accomplished in a 45- minute high school period.
The students were working on a robotic cars that respond to the environment through sensors and computer programming.
"It is an awesome opportunity, and the collaborative effort between all of us is great," sai Michael Morales of Gloversville. "We all have our own projects, but we are constantly giving each other input on how what we are working on can be better. You also get more time and hands-on experience in this type of environment where the class is extended."
Engineering education can be a pathway to several careers.
"If you have an engineering degree, it can open the door to a lot of different fields because of the experience you get in conductive reasoning," said Christian Eyster of Canajoharie. "I don't know if this is what I want to do with the rest of my life, but the degree is something I am looking to obtain."
Joe Novotny of Amsterdam said he is working toward a career in nanotechnology or nano-medicine.
"This is a great thing because we don't have this type of access to equipment or technology in the high school," Novotny said. "The things we are using every day in class [are] what is being used for the engineering or technology jobs of today."
Levi Pascher can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.