PacSci Perspectives

Senator Patty Murray Visits

by | Jun 6, 2016

We were honored last week to convene Connected STEM Learning Roundtable with Senator Patty Murray, a gathering hosted by Pacific Science Center and the National Girls Collaborative of more than 50 community leaders, STEM educators and students from around the state.

Flanked by Pacific Science Center’s towering solar-powered flowers and whirring kinetic clock, Senator Murray spoke of the urgent need to build a robust STEM learning ecosystem and expand access to STEM education. That would help prepare more youth—especially girls and students of color — for careers that depend on science, technology, engineering and math skills.

“Too often, when I talk about STEM in the other Washington (Washington D.C.), people envision a teacher in a science class,” Sen. Murray said. “But STEM learning opportunities can be – and should be – much more expansive….Sparking a passion for STEM can change a student’s life and help strengthen our economy and our country. And igniting that spark takes a diverse group of organizations and individuals – both inside and outside of the classroom.”

Recent research shows STEM learning results from dynamic interactions across the day and over a lifetime. Curiosity can be inspired in diverse settings: science centers, museums, libraries, zoos, aquaria, parks, nature preserves, camps, youth programs, research institutions or businesses. Murray and roundtable participants envision a “STEM Learning Ecosystem” in which these groups collaborate with each other, schools and families to engage kids in science.

It’s not only important for students’ futures, Murray said, it’s critical for the economy of the state and nation. By 2018, STEM jobs in Washington state will increase by 24 percent, and by some estimates, employers in Washington state won’t be able to fill as many as 45,000 STEM jobs for lack of qualified workers.

Closing the gender and color gap among STEM professionals would help, Murray said. Women are only 14 percent of engineers and only 27 percent of workers in computer science and math. And while African-American and Latino workers represent 14 and 11 percent of overall employment, respectively, these groups make up just six percent of STEM workers.

“If we did more to inspire young women and more African-American and Latino students to engage in STEM subjects, we could better meet the demand for those workers, and our businesses would benefit from a more diverse environment,” Murray said. “The future of our state and our country will rely on our commitment today to close these gaps in STEM fields.”

“I love this place because it’s such a dynamic learning experience,” said Murray, a former preschool teacher who brought her young students to the Science Center. “Every day, people come to the Science Center and leave with a newfound passion for science that lasts a lifetime.”

Murray’s bipartisan K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), requires schools to close achievement gaps. It supports STEM education by funding grants to increase access to STEM subjects and improve student achievement. ESSA also gives school districts the flexibility to partner with community-based organizations, afterschool programs and other groups to provide high-quality STEM and computer science programming.

“We need to be creative and find ways to enhance STEM learning in school and out of school,” Murray told roundtable participants. “What you all are doing helps ignite curiosity in students. And that curiosity not only drives students toward more and more exposure to STEM learning – but it also drives them to develop into engaged learners and members of their community inside and outside the classroom.”

The roundtable spotlighted three models of connected STEM learning: Business Afterschool in Spokane, the Mid-Columbia STEM Education Collaboratory and the interns in Pacific Science Center’s Discovery Corps and Lake Washington Watershed Internship Program.

Then, roundtable participants met in smaller, working groups to brainstorm about actions and policies to encourage connected STEM learning efforts.

“This is just the beginning of an ongoing conversation,” said Karen Peterson, CEO for National Girls’ Collaborative, who organized the roundtable with Pacific Science Center Senior Advisor Dennis Schatz.

“My personal dream—many would call it a fantasy,” Schatz said, “is that someday, science will be as pervasive as sports. This meeting is one more step toward realizing that dream.”