UCCS, school districts, manufacturers teaming to develop workforce

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A Colorado Springs middle school and a university professor are experimenting with a physics program that could revolutionize the region’s future workforce.

In the fall, Carmel Middle School, in Harrison School District Two, will be the first public school in the state, possibly the nation, to teach physics in middle school, starting in sixth-grade — something that’s common in Asia and Europe.

It’s a gutsy move because physics has traditionally been taught in the junior or senior year of high school. But, those who created the plan hope this one change in school programming will shape the region’s future workforce — a workforce that’s lacking scientists and engineers to run the existing high-tech and manufacturing firms.

University of Colorado at Colorado Springs physics professor Anatoliy  is the catalyst behind the idea. He has taught school in foreign countries, where sciences are taught to children at a younger age than in the U.S. As the director of the UCCS Center for Advanced Technologies and Optical Materials, he also works closely with local high-tech firms.

“The future of this region is the key question,” he said. “Ultimately, this is about the workforce.”

Colorado Springs has made it a priority to target software and information technology; aerospace defense; and clean technology firms. All of those industries need math, science, technology and engineering specialists, Glushchenko said.

Across the country high-tech firms have sent a rallying cry that they will have 1.2 million job openings in science,

technology, engineering and math related fields by 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But, there are not enough graduates in those areas of study to take the jobs.

It is already difficult to fill engineering positions in the Springs, said Frank Caris, president and CEO of dpiX, which develops high resolution imaging for medical and military markets. His company recently moved its headquarters from Palo Alto, Calif. to Colorado Springs and invested $150 million into its facility, including a 50,000 square-foot clean room. He needs highly qualified employees to handle the most delicate, most expensive equipment.

Caris, who spoke at a recent manufacturing forum where company leaders described their workforce needs to local educators and workforce development specialists, said he is importing his workforce. And, the development jobs at his firm can pay from $150,000 to $200,000 a year.

“The only way for us to be successful is by our people,” he said. “At the moment we have real serious challenges finding these people.”

Glushchenko said he’s heard from at least a half dozen other firms in the region with the same request: more engineers, please.

But, the problem cannot be solved only at the college level, Glushchenko said. Educators have to go further — back to middle school. That, he said, is a time when children are finding their passion, which continues through high school and into college when choosing a major of study. Only 16 percent of undergraduate students choose science and engineering as a major. And, studies show that of those, less than 40 percent of college students majoring in science, technology, engineering or math actually finish the degree.

“Middle school is the main link to make sure they love science,” Glushchenko said.

He studied middle school curricula in Europe and Asia and found that physics instruction begins in sixth-grade. His research showed that students who have been exposed to physics at an early age are more likely to choose a science, math or engineering path in college, and complete the degree, Glushchenko said.

“And, ultimately companies will have their engineers,” he said.

Physics is the most fundamental science discipline. It is the science that leads to all other sciences. And learning it in high school is just too late, Glushchenko said.

Mike Miles, Harrison School District superintendent, agrees. Carmel Middle School has been undergoing an entire curricula revamp for the past five years — one where students learn economics and globalization, information literacy and Chinese. Next fall, physics will be added to the course work for sixth, seventh and eighth grade, he said. Not every child will go on to become an engineer, Miles said. But, the possibility is open to them if the want to.

“We have to have kids in the 2020 workplace that understand how to think critically, but we need more kids going into math, science and engineering,” Miles said. “This will help — it exposes students to several branches of science and engineering.”

Carmel is the only middle school in the district to take on physics in the fall. But, it’s a program that could be expanded to other schools, said Carmel Middle School principal Ted Knight. Depending on its success, the school would like to add computer programming and chemistry to seventh and eighth grade lessons in the 2013-2014 school year.

“We know our kids love physical science,” he said.

Even children who are not typical “A” students in the classroom get engaged when they visit UCCS and work on solar-cars and electricity experiments, he said. So, hands-on experiments are a key part of next fall’s physics lessons.

“We want kids to create stuff; we want them to invent things, especially as the world is now,” Knight said. “It seems to me that with most of the new inventions a person needs to have a background in physics to understand how they are made.”

Local manufactures want to engage kids too, said Barry Baum, retired president of Western Forge and member of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC’s local industry council. He said they need to change the perception among youth that manufacturing is all greasy parts and dusty warehouses. It is now high-tech machines that often require specialized degrees.

“There have been some real changes in manufacturing,” he said. “With increases in automation, technology and robotics, manufacturing is in need of more degreed engineers.”

Pueblo manufacturers are courting middle schoolers too. The Pueblo Community College Economic and Workforce Development Division has partnered with two school districts for a summer program for seventh-graders. About 450 students will tour manufacturing plants and then a smaller group will attend a summer manufacturing institute where they will learn robotics and 3D design and drafting. In the fall, eighth-graders will take a “Tech Challenge” and compete in technology competitions, with local manufacturers as their mentors.

“We have to create a pipeline, we have to create these partnerships,” said John Vukich, dean of PCC Economic and Workforce Development Division.

Colorado Springs should copy the program and build excitement around careers in manufacturing, Baum said. They know children are interested in pre-engineering and robotics programs; they just need to learn more about today’s manufacturing world, he said.

The long-term prosperity of the region depends on it, Glushchenko said.

“Education is not only a school problem anymore,” he said. “It is a community problem and uniting resources from private sectors, academics and businesses leads to a timely solution.”