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The Issues: Why Nevada Must Encourage Students to Get STEM Degrees

Education policy experts explore how to grow interest among students in highly technical industries and what that means for Nevada’s economy.

Business & Community  |  Mar 8, 2017  |  By Kelsey Hand
Erika Torres teaches a fifth-grader

UNLV biology student Erika Torres teaches a fifth-grader from Dean Petersen Elementary School about color chromatography at a recent Rebel Science Camp. Such programs help combat youth misperceptions of the “types” of people who enter into highly technical fields. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

In an economy increasingly characterized by and intertwined with technology, Nevada possesses an inadequate supply of employees trained in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, better known as the STEM fields. At the same time, projects such as the Tesla gigafactory and the telecommunications hub for Switch demonstrate the potential economic benefits associated with cultivating a population with these skills.

The Nevada Legislature has taken important first steps in creating a foundation for effective STEM education — all with an eye toward diversifying the Nevada workforce and building the state’s health and technology sectors. However, our experts report that challenges remain to broader STEM adoption. First, the number of students who choose STEM-related careers is relatively small. Second, because STEM curricula are particularly rigorous, late-stage dropout is common. Programs that encourage and reward educational perseverance and support retention are critical, they note.

Our Experts

  • Matthew Bernacki, assistant professor in the College of Education’s Educational Psychology and Higher Education department
  • Harsha Perera, assistant professor in the College of Education’s Educational Psychology and Higher Education department

These experts authored a policy paper, "Encouraging Young Nevadans to Choose and Complete STEM Degrees: A Choice and Retention Perspective on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Workforce Development," that appears in the College of Education’s 2017 volume of reports for Nevada lawmakers. To read the full paper, visit the College of Education's policy initiatives site.

A few facts

  • Southern Nevada is ranked 97th among 100 metropolitan areas evaluated in terms of employees in STEM-related fields, with 3.6 percent of the workforce compared with an 8.7 percent national average.
  • STEM-related fields represent only 7.1 percent of Nevada’s Gross Domestic Product compared to a national average of 18 percent.
  • Of Nevada’s 16 counties and one independent city, only four have any STEM-specific school programs and, of those, only two counties (Clark, with 13, and Washoe, with four) have more than one STEM program. However, all seven NSHE institutions provide at least some academic programs that can contribute workers to Nevada’s STEM workforce.

How is Nevada currently supporting students who may consider a STEM field as their future career?

In 2013, the Nevada Legislature established an clearinghouse, based within the Nevada System of Higher Education, to provide Nevadans a comprehensive listing of STEM-related resources and opportunities. It also provided resources to expand in-school STEM programs and created programs to reward successful STEM students and educators.

Can we pinpoint specific reasons that students are not choosing STEM fields of study?

Our experts explain that there are plenty of reasons students don’t choose STEM fields — ranging from perceptions of the “types” of people who enter into STEM careers to prospective students being underprepared for the rigor of courses within STEM curriculum. However, it seems that many students do not consider a STEM career simply because they are not exposed to programs or experiences that introduce them to the many facets of the field.

What happens if STEM education and program maintain status quo?

Economically, Nevada is missing out a large piece of the technology sector pie, and the inadequate number of skilled workers in STEM fields will hold the state’s economic development back. In 2015, Nevada’s STEM industries generated approximately $6 billion in gross domestic product, approximately 7.1 percent of the state’s total output. The national average is more than double that, at 17.7 percent.

“Without cultivating a qualified employee base,” Bernacki said, Nevada will continue to be overlooked for lucrative STEM- and technology-related business opportunities. “Our state has long relied on the leisure and hospitality industry, which currently employs approximately more than 31 percent of Nevada’s private workforce,” he said. “While this industry is critical to our economy and a cornerstone characterization for our state, this weighting makes Nevada vulnerable to national events that impact tourism, such that we saw during the economic downturn in recent years.”