The announcement of Tesla’s gigafactory in the Reno/Sparks area has catalyzed conversation about Nevada’s education and raised concerns about the ability of local workers to fill jobs in high-tech industries.
Concerns over Nevada’s ability to produce a STEM educated workforce come from bleak national rankings. In 2013, Nevada was ranked 51st in U.S. state education, and spent $8,454 per student ($3,000 less than the national average) . Never more timely, Nevada’s education problem took center stage in Governor Brian Sandoval’s State of the State address, where he called for $882 million in education funding. Nevada’s expanded education budget would support a focus on STEM education because “The New Nevada will need more scientists, machinists, engineers, computer programmers, welders and other STEM workers to grow our new industries”.
Currently, 90% of US public school students in fifth through eighth grades are taught the physical sciences by a teacher without a degree or certificate in the physical sciences. This has a downstream effect on both college readiness and our economy. 30% of Nevada’s first-time community college students who just graduated from high school need remediation in math, which costs the state $5,983,046 each year.
So what is Nevada’s plan to combat both the low US national standards and the historical weight of poor state education? STEM.
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education) has become increasingly important to Nevada. After the housing, gaming, and tourism industries crashed, state leaders concentrated on drawing high-tech companies to Nevada in an effort to diversify the state’s economy, and it has worked. Nevada’s low property tax, wide-open desert terrain and proximity to major metropolitan areas have attracted manufacturers to the area in recent years. Estimates suggest that Nevada will demand a total of 49,460 STEM jobs by 2018, up from 37,220 in 2008. The Brookings Research Report: A People’s Strategy for Nevada’s Economy includes recommendations for Nevada’s success, including a STEM workforce Challenge Grant Program, the establishment of an RDA-led STEM Internship Program, the incorporation of science into the P-12 curriculum, and greater support for STEM Educator Professional Development.
The success of Nevada’s economy depends on education. “Strengthening STEM education and workforce training requires concerted efforts on the part of the public and civic sectors alike”.
Over the last 15 years, Northern Nevada NGOs have risen to the education challenge, though it may not be showing in state numbers just yet. In 1997, through partnership between Washoe County School District (WCSD), Desert Research Institute, and the University of Nevada Medicine and Engineering colleges, the Raggio Research Center was born. The Raggio Research Center for STEM Education at the University of Nevada, Reno advances the theory and practice STEM education through collaborative research, development, instruction, dissemination, leadership, and outreach.
In 2000, Green Power was founded in Nevada through an outreach program of the Desert Research Institute. Nevada residents, who make a volunteer contribution through their NV Energy electric bill, sponsor DRI programs. These donations provide numerous resources for GreenPower schools, such as professional development for teachers, educational materials for Green Boxes, and tools for classroom instruction.
In 2006, Nevada STEM Coalition, previously known as Gathering Genius, Inc. was established. Their core values are to make STEM education available to all students, including women, minorities, and the disadvantaged, and to provide multidisciplinary experiences that promote exploration and creativity to motivate students toward STEM careers.
Also in 2006, Sierra Nevada Journeys (SNJ) was born when a 6th grader from Reno gazed upon Lake Tahoe for the first time and asked “Are there sharks in this ocean?”. SNJ provides innovative outdoor science education, featuring in-class STEM programs, professional development for teachers and educators, and outdoor summer camps Since it’s inception, SNJ has been a leader in Nevada’s move toward STEM education by offering courses that focus on getting students outside and exploring their natural environment.
These early programs laid the groundwork for Northern Nevada’s STEM education, and in the past 5 years our region boomed. The Terry Lee Wells Discovery Museum has seen enormous success since its start in December of 2011. The MESA/First Generation Engineering Camp developed by UNR’s College of Engineering in 2013 featured hands-on science experiments like participating in a seismic challenge where students construct buildings out of toothpicks and gumdrops and test their structural integrity on a mini shake table. Also in 2013, Senate Bill 345 was passed, creating the Nevada STEM Advisory Council that will develop a strategic plan, identify up to 15 exemplary STEM schools, and recognize exemplary STEM students, among other goals.
In 2014, Nevada’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) developed NERDS (Nevada Educators Really Doing Science), dedicated to helping teachers develop their skills in teaching science and solar energy. Other projects include the STEM Career Investigation Program (SCIP) to help students learn about STEM-related businesses and realize careers in science and engineering. This past year, Nevada also officially adopted Next Generation Science Standards which concentrates on the importance of teaching science for all students, even those who will not enter STEM careers. “Beyond the concern of employability looms the larger question of what it takes to thrive in today’s society. Citizens now face problems from pandemics to energy shortages whose solutions require all the scientific and technological genius we can muster. Americans are being forced to increasingly make decisions—including on health care and retirement planning—where literacy in science and mathematics is a real advantage.”
Nevada may have the nation’s poorest education ratings now, but current development in STEM opportunities and the drive from state leadership, university outreach programs, and non-profit organizations are making waves in Nevada’s education standards.
Sierra Nevada Journeys is proud to be a leader of a growing understanding in the importance of STEM education to Nevada’s overall economic success. Since our start in 2006, we have served over 45,000 students and 3,000 educators with mutually supporting residential outdoor science programs, field / school based programs, and teacher professional development. With an 88-92% increase in our participating students’ comprehension of state science standards we are excited for Nevada’s STEM future, and welcome Tesla, Switch, and the other high-tech industries headed our way!
 National Center for Education Statistics. (2003). Qualifications of the public school teacher workforce: prevalence of out of field teaching 1987-1988 and 1999-2000. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education