Creating “AgBioscience” STEM Schools in the Buckeye State
STEM education in Ohio is a growing component of the state’s K-12 system. Metro Early College High School opened as a STEM school in Columbus in 2007, and since then STEM schools have opened their doors in metro regions like Dayton, Cincinnati, Akron, and Cleveland. The schools have drawn millions of dollars in support from state government, local school districts, the private sector and philanthropy (see here for details).
So far, however, the state’s STEM network has not yet opened a school that is aimed at the state’s dynamic agricultural sector and all that supports it. Senator Chris Widener (a Republican from Springfield who chairs the Senate Finance Committee) hopes to tackle this void in the state’s STEM sector. There is a whole lot of merit to this effort.
As I learned (somewhat surprisingly) in talking with Sen. Widener, one in seven jobs in Ohio is connected to the “AgBioscience” sector. This sector comprises food, agriculture, environmental, and bio-based products industries. As a whole the sector employs about a million workers statewide with an annual economic impact of over $100 billion a year. It is one of Ohio’s fastest growing sectors with thousands of jobs going unfilled because there aren't enough skilled Ohioans to do the work. Consider the following statistics provided last week by Sen. Widener:
- Ohio has added on average 59 new bioscience companies a year since 2004, and the state is currently home to 1,300 such companies. These include Bob Evans, JM Smucker Company, Wendy’s International, Kroger, Dannon, Nestle, and WeightWatchers – to name just a few.
- Average salary in the AgBioscience sector is $68,384.
- If the demand for labor can met the sector is set to grow 20 percent this decade in Ohio.
- The planet will add 2 billion more people in the next couple of decades and as countries get richer they eat more meat. 60 percent of the world's feed corn for cattle, chickens, etc. is raised in just five American states and Ohio is one of those.
Sen. Widener is trying to mobilize allies across the state (his targets include industry leader Battelle and Ohio State University) to help launch a handful of STEM AgBioscienceacademies in some of the state's rural counties. The Springfield school district in Clark County (located between Dayton and Columbus) is so excited about this project that it has already donated a $10 million building to start the first academy there in 2013.
The big idea here is to attract young people to a growing sector that has not been seen as particularly “sexy” for young people. For most Ohioans and Americans more generally, anything with “ag” in it still means toiling away for long hours on a farm, which is simply no longer the case. But, one of the challenges facing Sen. Widener, and other supporters of such schools, is making the sector more attractive to young people and their parents.
There are also numerous implementation challenges here to tackle; including:
- Crafting an academic program for the academies that includes curricula aligned to the Common Core;
- Finding talent to lead these innovative academies that target fairly unique academic content and student populations;
- Finding and developing teachers who not only excel at math and science but can weave these and other subjects across the AgBioscience sector; and
- Creating a workable governance structure for schools that will need to attract students from multiple counties and school districts.
STEM AgBioscience academies are new territory for educators, and putting together a viable academic program in AgBioscience for middle and high schoolers is sure to be a heavy lift. But, done well and with the right partners this effort could pay serious dividends for the state’s economy and its young people. With 500,000 Ohioans currently unemployed it makes sense to create academic programs that actually help prepare young people for where the jobs are. In Ohio, the jobs are connected to food and all the businesses that support raising it, getting it packaged, and getting it to people across the globe.
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May 8, 2013