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Opinion | Michigan is making a difference in STEM education

The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, a competitive youth robotics league, has come to Detroit this week for their national championships. Though FIRST is nationwide, Michigan has the most teams of any state represented. This is no coincidence.

Michigan has made it a priority to provide our children the learning opportunities that make for successful careers. Last year, Michigan continued its efforts from previous budgets and set aside $2.5 million in grants for schools to participate in programs like FIRST. We need to build on this success by continuing to make smart investments into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education and to work with job providers to connect kids with high-quality learning experiences that can lead to foot-in-the-door opportunities for success and employment.

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Getting our youth exposed to STEM at an early age is critically important as they begin to make choices that will affect what they want to do in life. Too many kids today see science and math as boring or difficult, but they might have a much different attitude if the materials were presented in a more interesting way. The latest statewide assessment shows that almost 65 percent of 8th grade students are not fully proficient in math. Obviously we need to continue to push for change.

The Michigan STEM Advisory Council released a report in 2016 outlining the various ways our state could achieve this transformation. Their recommendations included more closely connecting STEM education with regional career opportunities, allocating funds for STEM-specific learning resources and creating better overall STEM experiences for interested students.

I advocate for giving maximum flexibility to students, parents and school districts to best meet their needs and to avoid costly new requirements that don’t translate into real-world results.

And success is important. STEM fields include some of the fastest-growing and best-paying occupations, and many industries are experiencing a shortage of qualified workers for these positions. Many are turning to foreign talent when we have the opportunity to meet those needs right here at home. If we want to prepare the next generation of American children to be leaders and innovators, we need to maintain STEM education as a top priority and not just as an afterthought to more traditional programs.

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Many of our industries are desperate to find reliable talent pipelines to supply needed employees, and in some cases have already had success with partnerships that connect students with hands-on career experience. We should encourage more of these programs where interested students can gain tangible work skills outside of the rigid environment of traditional academics. Targeted investments into programs like FIRST, and legislation such as Senate Bill 544, a measure I sponsored, would go a long way in helping with that.

Best of luck to the contestants in this week’s FIRST competition. No matter who takes home a trophy, everyone will win in the long run with better opportunities for jobs and higher education.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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