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Article posted: 3/28/2012 12:17 PM

The importance of tech education in creating a competitive workforce

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By Dr. Christine Sobek

In his biography of the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson recounts a discussion between Jobs and President Barack Obama about why Apple employed 700,000 factory workers in China and not in the United States.

Jobs told President Obama that Apple's factories are located in China because of the availability of 30,000 engineers that are needed to support the larger workforce there.

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Jobs said that type of expertise is simply not currently available in the United States in the quantities needed to compete with China's workforce.

Fortunately, community colleges are responding to this challenge and making critical Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education highly accessible, which lays the groundwork for U.S. competitiveness.

We are privileged to live in an area of the country rich with STEM resources and world-class infrastructure. In addition to numerous high-tech industrial leaders that call Chicago and the western suburbs home, one of the most advanced labs in the world, Fermilab, is located in Batavia.

Aurora has developed a fiber-optic network that positions it to compete with any other community in the nation. The Illinois Math and Science Academy teaches some of the brightest young minds in the state.

Waubonsee Community College supports this solid foundation with numerous partnerships to provide students access to pursuit of STEM careers. In 2006, Waubonsee opened its state-of-the-art Science Building on the college's Sugar Grove Campus. This academic facility offers students advanced technologies and prepares students for careers in many different STEM areas. Students love learning in the cutting-edge labs.

Waubonsee's new campuses in Plano and downtown Aurora also feature similarly sophisticated science labs.

In addition, outstanding faculty members who are both experts in their field and passionate teachers become mentors to students studying in the STEM majors. Waubonsee faculty spearheaded the college's successful application for a nearly $600,000 National Science Foundation STEM grant. The grant provides funding for Waubonsee to offer scholarships to talented students looking to earn a STEM degree.

This fall, 18 students participated as Waubonsee STEM scholars; 12 of these had demonstrated financial need and received scholarship assistance. STEM Scholars are pushed to learn outside of the classroom through work with a faculty mentor. Each month a chosen scholar presents a paper to his or her peers for discussion and review.

Students interested in the STEM fields can still apply for Waubonsee's STEM scholarship. Applications and more information can be found at waubonsee.edu/STEM.

A recent example of STEM leadership is that Waubonsee was invited by the Genetics Society of America to nominate three students to attend a "Genetics Conference Experience" for undergraduate students at their annual Drosophila Research Conference in Chicago in early March. Two of the students attending are nontraditional age students; students who would be unlikely to enroll in a traditional four-year program. This conference experience will provide wonderful opportunities to pursue careers in biological research.

The focus on STEM education and its role in maintaining the United States' position in the world is not a new concept. Going back to the Cold War, the Soviet Union's Sputnik launch spurred a significant U.S. investment in the STEM disciplines and infrastructure. Now, it is time for our K-12 schools, community colleges and universities to respond to the new challenges brought on by new global competition.

Our country's future success is tied to dramatically increasing the technical aptitude of our workforce and those with sought-after STEM degrees. At Waubonsee, we are playing a significant role in providing access to education and resources for students who will become the teachers, researchers, engineers, and leaders who ensure that innovation remains a vital element of our local economy.

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