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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