SALT LAKE CITY — Reigning Miss America Mallory Hagan said too many students in the United States are not being exposed to the exciting careers that come from education, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
"There are so many kids across the nation who don't have a favorite subject, who don't enjoy going to school," Hagan said Friday during a STEM event at the Salt Lake Chamber. "If we want to continue to be a world leader, we have got to set our students up for success. We can't become stagnant as a country."
Too many parents accept the "I'm just not good at math" statement made by their young — and particularly female — children, she said. But with many STEM employers around the country reporting a shortage of trained American applicants, Hagan said states need to take a serious look at promoting science and technology fields and helping students see the potential in those careers.
"We can do that by showing them the really cool careers that come out of STEM," she said. "There are so many kids who just don't know. They don't understand that there's so much they can do."
Hagan, who won the 2013 Miss America pageant on a platform of child sexual abuse prevention, said she began her university education as a biomedical science student with hopes of becoming a dentist.
Since then, she has transitioned to pursuing a career in cosmetics and fragrance marketing but said her career path may have been different if her high school education had more of a STEM focus.
Hagan said she was generally interested in science and mathematics in her junior high years, but in high school, those subjects were throwaway courses taught by athletic coaches.
"I started to realize I graduated high school with a 3.9 grade-point average, but I knew not as much as I should have," she said of her freshman year at Auburn University.
Mark Bouchard, chairman of the business-led Prosperity 2020 education initiative, also spoke of his educational background, raised in inner-city Detroit by his single mother.
Bouchard said he saw a lot of things growing up in that situation that have stayed with him throughout the years. A common thread in distressed neighborhoods is a lack of education, he said.
"Education is at the root, the cornerstone, of everything good that happens in America," Bouchard said. "Education in every form, starting with STEM, which we emphasize in this state, is something that we have to focus in on again as Americans. It needs to become our priority again."
Friday's event also included an announcement by the Governor's Office of Economic Development that several board members for Utah's recently created STEM Action Center had been selected. They include Bert VanderHeiden of ATK, Blair Carruth of the Utah System of Higher Education, Brad Rencher of Adobe, Christine Kearl of the governor's office, Gene Levinzon of Goldman Sachs, Mark Openshaw of the State School Board, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove, Utah College of Applied Technology President Robert Brems, Stan Lockhart of IM Flash Technologies, and Spencer Eccles of GOED.
Utah's STEM Action Center was created during the most recent Legislative session with a $10 million appropriation as part of the state's push to increase degree attainment among adults by the year 2020.
Sophia DiCaro, deputy director of GOED, said the center is intended as a collaboration between education officials and representatives from the public and private sectors to examine best practices and potentially award grants to schools for STEM programs.
DiCaro said the Action Center board met for the first time last week. Additional board positions have yet to be finalized, she said, and members are only in the first stages of developing and launching plans.
"We'll be assessing what's already out there, what's actually taking place and what's happening outside the state," DiCaro said. "How that is deployed is still to be determined."