Thursday, January 23, 2014

Amazon, Microsoft, and Expedia represent only a slice of the tech companies that call Washington home. Yet, our companies frequently recruit talented individuals from elsewhere to fill their needs. In fact, Washington State imports more individuals with bachelor degrees or higher than any other state.

At January’s Washington Education Innovation Forum, Professor Ed Lazowska discussed how Washington’s primary and secondary schools are doing little to give students skills related to the jobs that are being created in their backyard, potential consequences if we do not change course, and how we might best expose our youth to STEM skills that are increasingly shaping our region’s economy and identity.

About Dr. Lazowska
Ed Lazowska holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. He also serves as the Founding Director of the University of Washington eScience Institute, and was the Founding Chair of the Computing Community Consortium.

Lazowska received his BA from Brown University in 1972 and his PhD from the University of Toronto in 1977, when he joined the University of Washington faculty.

Lazowska’s research and teaching concern the design, implementation, and analysis of high performance computing and communication systems, and, more recently, the techniques and technologies of data-intensive science.

Two Tales of Two Washingtons
There are two tales of two Washingtons, according to Professor Ed Lazowska. The technology sector in Washington State has changed dramatically in the past 30 years, and with the rise of innovative companies has come the development of a workforce culture that attracts others into the state. Although creativity and innovation are in abundance here, our state has failed to capitalize on building a strong STEM education infrastructure. This failure has resulted in two Washingtons: the Washington of those who move here from outside the state, and the Washington of those who are born and raised here.

In order to prepare Washington students for Washington jobs, our state needs a more aggressive innovation strategy. Professor Lazowska noted that the current education system is appropriate for the economy of 40 years ago and is doing very little to equip our students for the intellectual economy we operate in today. Implementing STEM education programs at scale in schools across the state is seen by Lazowska as a step in preparing our kids for the future economy. In order to draw from more talent within the state, children need to be proficient in skills such as computational thinking, especially considering that computer science talent is in incredibly high demand.

Once Professor Lazowska identified the lack of a coherent STEM plan within the state, several questions arose: How does Washington move forward with implementing STEM programs at scale? What will these STEM programs look like? Further, how do we build up post-secondary institutional capacity so that it can support an influx of talent from within state schools? All of these questions and more were the focus of forum discussion, as participants identified the complexities of the problem here in Washington State. From all the discussion, at least one thing seems certain: with such difficult questions, there are no easy answers.