STEM’s influence growing in county

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There was a meeting of the minds Jan. 24 between area educators and some big energy companies about the necessity for science, technology, engineering and math preparation, but many schools showed that “STEM,” as the disciplines are known collectively, has already taken root in their schools.


The meeting at PONY headquarters in North Franklin Township, arranged by state Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-North Strabane Township, was entitled the STEM Initiative Forum. It drew participants from six Washington County school districts, Western Area Career and Technology Center, Intermediate Unit 1, 1st Love Christian Academy, St. Patrick Elementary and Penn Commercial and the Carnegie Science Center.


Participants from industry included Chevron, Shell Oil and Westinghouse.


STEM has moved to the forefront of educational initiatives because of the increasing emphasis on science and technology in business and industry.


In Western Pennsylvania, the growth of the energy industry, particularly the exploration for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, but also in coal, nuclear, solar, wind and power generation, means that the majority of available jobs from laborer up to the top positions now require knowledge of STEM components.


Neuman said his office arranged the meeting, “because we want Washington County to be thinking forward about what’s needed for preparing local people for local jobs.


“We wanted to bring the job creators and educators together and have you figure out how we get our youth interested in what’s available locally.”


“Drilling (for natural gas) requires a tremendous amount of technology and a tremendous amount of STEM skills,” said Trip Oliver, manager of policy, government and public affairs for Chevron, which became active in the Marcellus Shale after in purchased Atlas Energy in 2011.


Oliver noted that Chevron has invested more than $100 million in STEM education in the U.S. over the last three years.


“Our industry depends on STEM skills in order to succeed, as do most industries these days,” Oliver said. He added that Chevron became a prime sponsor at Carnegie Science Center, which promotes a number of STEM-based learning experiences and competitions for students of all ages.


Dr. Joseph Iannetti, director of Western Area Career and Technology Center, said STEM’s importance became evident when an executive from Consol Energy sat in his office and told him that “No job is low-tech anymore.”


Iannetti showed evidence that nearly all of WACTC’s courses use a combined emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math.


Other local educators also described various efforts to incorporate STEM at all grade levels, particularly in science classes.


Grace Lani, director of curriculum and instruction at Canon-McMillan, incorporates the discipline as “project-based learning, and works with Pittsburgh-based Catalyst Connection to give students opportunities to work with local manufacturers like All-Clad Metalcrafters and Universal Electric, as well as natural gas processor MarkWest.”


At Chartiers-Houston, physics teacher Pat Campbell said students can participate in the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science, Westinghouse Science Honors Institute, as well as visits to the University of Pittsburgh’s chemistry labs.


At California University of Pennsylvania, which offers a two-year degree in robotics and will introduce a bachelor’s degree in mechatronics in the fall, the emphasis is on the school becoming a resource center for area educators, said Dr. Stephen Whitehead, interim associate provost and vice president of academic affairs.


Others stressed that acquiring STEM skills isn’t just for those who are bound for four years of college.


While Michael Alvarez, Shell Oil’s manager of workforce development initiatives, acknowledged that Shell recruits at 23 universities across the country for engineering and geoscience graduates, he also focuses on those with two-year technical degrees to fill positions in process technology.


Alvarez also told the audience that Shell is involved in 54 STEM outreach programs in communities where it has operations.


Its emphasis on finding qualified employees at all levels is critical he said, because the company recognized several years ago that many of its experienced employees will retire soon.


“We’re going to be hit by the greatest crew change,” he said, noting that about 40 to 50 percent of the company’s workforce is ready for retirement.


Iannetti said the two-year degree is key to opening job opportunities here in energy and manufacturing.


“We are well-suited for this economy and we are well suited to send students to college,” Iannetti said of WACTC’s programs.


“Economies are driven by two-year technical degrees.”


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