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 to me 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 their citizens 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 is so excited about this project that it has already donated a $10
million building to start the first academy there in 2013.

The primary goal 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. Doing this successfully, while also maintaining
the health of the state’s environment, will be important in determining Ohio’s future
quality of life.

This piece orginally appeared on the Ohio Gadfly Daily.

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