A new generation of education leaders aims to change what has been dubbed the “Colorado Paradox” — the inability of the education system to generate a native population of highly-skilled and educated professionals to meet the needs of local industry.

Colorado imports most of its intellectual power. Reports indicate that Colorado has one of the highest number of college graduates per capita, yet it ranks 30th nationally in graduation rates — only 1 in 5 of its ninth-graders proceed to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree. The state also ranks 48th in K-12 education funding. In seeking to understand STEM education leadership, locally and nationally, I spoke with several colleagues. Notably, none of them can claim the status of Colorado native.

Noah Finkelstein relocated to Colorado from the coasts, having been raised and resided on both. From the Gamow Physics Tower overlooking the Boulder campus of CU, Finkelstein, physics professor and co-director of the Center for STEM Learning, takes a bird’s-eye view of STEM education. Finkelstein suggests that it is time to broaden the discussion beyond meeting workforce needs to making lasting and meaningful change. Finkelstein urges leaders to avoid previous pitfalls associated with replicating and disseminating educational models — explaining that success comes from adaption rather than adoption to meet the unique needs of a community. He warns that attempts to transplant a successful model (adoption) from one community to another industrializes education, treating teachers and students as components of a system of delivery and acquisition long recognized as a poor model of teaching and learning. Instead, Finkelstein recommends including students and teachers in the process of adapting and implementing evidence-based practices. Working at the national level in STEM education, Finkelstein encourages clear articulation of goals to ensure that efforts result in an education that serves as a basic infrastructure for our society’s welfare.

Every month, Gully Stanford hosts a regional round up of STEM efforts in Colorado at 7:30 on a Monday morning. Imported to Denver from Dublin, Stanford, director of partnerships for College in Colorado, never fails to recall names or affiliations. Therefore, I’m not surprised that when we discuss STEM leadership, he emphasizes partnerships. Were he king, Stanford’s STEM round table would include stakeholders from throughout the community including industry, pre-K and parents. Fortunately, notes Stanford, these alliances are on the rise. He explains that these partnerships will eventually remediate the lack of vertical collaboration that exists between early childhood and workforce readiness.

Violeta Garcia, originally from El Salvador by way of California, was recently appointed STEM Coordinator for the state of Colorado. In this role, Garcia strives to create equity in STEM education for the state’s underserved, rural and Latino population. Garcia emphasizes the need for great (STEM) experiences and great teachers that will ultimately lead to a great workforce. Pointing to the results of a 2010 research effort, Garcia explains that few rural students ever experience STEM in action. She worries that without exposure these children will continue to trail behind their peers growing up unaware of the value and importance of STEM and unable to compete in an evermore technically advanced world.

The challenge of producing a native population of highly-skilled and educated professionals, the Colorado Paradox, is just one of several faced by state educators and leaders. In addition, a recent state Supreme Court ruling suggests that funding education methods in Colorado conflict with the state constitution and there are predictions that public funding for postsecondary education will dry up by 2024. Fortunately, just as all the peaks in the state have been climbed, residents and leaders will eventually overcome these challenges.

Doug Haller is the principal of Haller STEM Education Consulting. Haller is an education consultant specializing in strategic planning and market analysis to drive design, development and sales of niche education products for clients in the for-profit, nonprofit, and education and public outreach fields. His creative approach is based on years of practical experience as an educator, instructional designer and education consultant. Check out his blog, STEM Education: Inspire, Engage, Educate.

Acknowledgements

  • Violeta Garcia, STEM coordinator, Colorado Department of Education
  • Noah Finkelstein, professor of physics, co-director of the Center for STEM Learning, University of Colorado, Boulder
  • Gully Stanford, director of partnerships, CollegeinColorado.org

Resources

Strickland, Ellen B., (2010), Enhancing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education in Colorado, University of Colorado, Denver.

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