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Ambition is limitless to children. Ask them what they want to be when they grow up and they might tell you a scientist, pilot or maybe even an astronaut. But as years go by, left-brain-centered career paths seem to become less favorable.

“People shy away from these topics,” says Laura Frost, professor of chemistry at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU). “They think you have to be some kind of genius to understand them.”

But CareerSource Southwest Florida spokesman Jim Wall says degrees related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are crucial to the area. The Employ Florida Marketplace shows that nearly 28 percent of open jobs in the area require an associate or bachelor’s degree. Those positions are commonly for the health care or science sector.

Companies such as Algenol, Arthrex, Lee Memorial Health System and NCH Healthcare System “were the ones that determined there is a need within our educational system to introduce the STEM curriculum,” he says.

Wall says Southwest Florida has made progressive steps to fit workforce needs. But continued improvements are dependent upon STEM-trained educators.

Science and mathematics are ranked among the top fields with critical certified-teaching shortages in Florida for 2015-16, according to a report released by the Florida Department of Education.

Frost, who also serves as director of the Whitaker Center for STEM Education at FGCU, says the center supports STEM-based learning among university faculty, teaching assistants, K-12 educators and community organizations.

The STEM Institute Summer Workshop for K-12 educators, for instance, partners with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida each year to promote hands-on environmental instruction.

Scholarships are also available for undergraduate STEM majors interested in STEM-based teaching, in addition to established STEM professionals who opt to teach in the field. This year, The Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation awarded FGCU with a $1.1 million grant to support three pathways for STEM educators.

Like other programs offered by the Whitaker Center, the curriculum at Florida SouthWestern Collegiate High School in Lee County emphasizes STEM-based learning at an early age.

Brian Botts, principal of the educational organization, says the four course types—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—constantly overlap in classrooms, along with liberal arts. Teachers are encouraged to share lesson plans with one another to relate material whenever possible.

“We’ve settled into critical thinking, collaboration and communication as the bedrock of what we’re trying to do across all programming,” Botts says. That way, students receive a seamless blend of technical training and soft skills.

Botts and Frost are two of the professionals who make up the STEM Team of Southwest Florida—a group of community leaders, educators and parent advocates of STEM programs and careers at all levels of education.

Each year, the team hosts a STEM Tour of six separate events incorporating fun challenges for K-12 students related to science, technology, engineering or math. Two years ago the high school invented quirky science experiments using rocks. FGCU holds a go-kart race with vehicles fixed to run on solar power. The 2015-16 tour takes place from Oct. 10 to April 2.

“What it really comes down to is engagement,” Botts says. “You take these traditionally difficult topics that are kind of intimidating and turn them into a high-yielding, exciting project.”

Frost says the logical skills that STEM education produces are paramount to a child’s success. “Problem solving is almost the hallmark to science, engineering, technology and mathematics, so that type of skill or being able to critically think—regardless of what area you end up going into—will help with your employment,” she says.

And with STEM teachers available to prep young minds with a vital skill set, children in Southwest Florida can continue to dream big—and do big. GB

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