Luke Franke, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — In the Coleman family, STEM is a household word.
Science, technology, engineering and math are frequent sources of homework for Laurie Coleman's children in first, third and fifth grades. And since their father is a research scientist, the Coleman children have no shortage of opportunities or parental support in pursuing STEM interests.
"We just try to give them opportunities to learn and be challenged," Laurie Coleman said.
She was one of dozens of parents walking with their kids Tuesday at the second annual STEM Fest, where companies and educators are gathering this week to showcase career opportunities in various STEM fields.
But there's a key component of her kids' education that Coleman doesn't want them to miss. It's a puzzle piece that ties it all together, helping them build a foundation of creativity and draw connections in their work, she said.
That piece is the arts, which makes Coleman and others see STEAM as a more complete academic puzzle.
"They're all connected," she said. "We try to do more art at home because we think it's important. I wish they had more art opportunities for art in school."
As some 4,000 students, their parents and teachers attended the STEM Fest on Tuesday — with another 14,000 expected to come this week — lawmakers on Capitol Hill debated two bills: one for science, and one for the arts.
One passed, the other didn't.
But lawmakers and educators still envision an education system where STEM and STEAM support each other and enable students in the process. And that requires finding a balance that provides students with a well-rounded education while meeting the needs of Utah's rapidly growing STEM industry.
"There's room for both, and in fact, there's a lot of overlap," said Tamara Goetz, executive director of the Utah STEM Action Center. "I think that both STEM as well as non-STEM areas can truly lift each other up and be more rich and diverse in opportunity."
The Senate Education Committee unanimously favored a bill Tuesday that would earmark more than $2 million to expand computer science instruction in Utah schools. The money would be used to develop curriculum and hire qualified teachers to introduce computer coding and similar subjects to students, according to bill sponsor Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.
"It is something we have found the industry is sorely in need of," Stephenson said. "We have heard that we have several thousand jobs on silicon slopes which are going unfilled because we simply are not providing in America, or in Utah for that matter, sufficient trained people in the computer science and coding world."
The goal of the bill, in many ways, parallels that of this week's STEM Fest: Introduce students to promising career opportunities while ensuring a qualified workforce over the long term.
"That bill directly addresses the critical needs that many of the companies at STEM Fest need in terms of talent," Goetz said. "We're looking at that bill as a comprehensive approach where it's a pathway that allows students to begin early exploring computer science, programming and software engineering opportunities with early internships in high school."
About two hours before Stephenson's bill passed the committee, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, was presenting a bill that would require school districts and charter schools to spend a minimum of 3 percent of their budget on the arts.
Broadly defined, that could include anything from theater to archeology to video game arts, according to the bill. And while most, if not all, schools already spend more than 3 percent of their budget on such subjects, the bill would ensure at least some funding for the arts in perpetuity, according to Dabakis.
"We have, to a large extent, risen to the task of creating an education system that is employer-based and job-based, and I admire that," Dabakis said. "But my fear is that we may have left something behind, and that is our arts — a lot of the non-job specific issues that have kept the soul in our education system."
Some members of the Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee worried that the bill would set a precedent that would entitle other subjects to their own minimum appropriations. Others said the bill was unnecessary since most schools already spend well over 3 percent on the arts.
The bill failed in a 4-2 vote.
Legislative support for arts education has been apparent in other areas, such as the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program. Last year, lawmakers provided $4 million in ongoing money and $2.5 million in one-time funds for the program, the largest appropriation since the interactive arts program took shape in 1995.
But some worry it's not enough.
"Thank goodness we've got jobs," Dabakis said. "But it takes more than just a singular job focus in order to create the kind of citizens and human beings that are going to make our state competitive."
This year's STEM Fest is expected to bring in roughly 5,500 more students than last year, and about 70 companies from across the state are now participating in the three-day event. Dozens of hands-on demonstrations, such as smoke ring cannons, Star Wars-themed 3-D simulators and student-built robotics, are aimed at helping students test their interests in possible careers.
Promising as those careers may be, STEM educators say STEAM still plays a central role in growing a labor pool equal to the demands of industry, where critical thinking and literacy skills are just as important as technical know-how, Goetz said.
She said students should strive to develop a "bilingual" set of skills that allows them recognize science and the arts as part of the same language of learning.
"Much of what our computer science and programming companies are doing falls within that creative space of arts and digital media. Those skills can really synergize and open up new doors for students," she said. "I do believe that STEM is not the only direction students can take. But it really does provide academic and career pathways that can bring quality of life and opportunities for life-long learning."
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