A prestigious award given to a University of Utah professor for mathematics research is further evidence of Utah’s ascendance as a place of accomplishment in the academic fields of math, science and engineering. The Breakthrough Prize and its $3 million award to mathematician Christopher Hacon may provide inspiration for public school students here to enter an important field of study in which, somewhat ironically, Utah lags behind other states in rates of proficiency.
While institutions like the U. have made substantial investments to attract top scholars in fields of science, technology, engineering and math, Utah continues to struggle getting students through STEM curricula in numbers sufficient to fill the demand for jobs in the fast-growing tech sector. The award conferred upon Hacon shows the bar here is set high, but we question whether enough is being done to ensure more students in the public schools are poised to reach it.
According to the Education Commission of the States, an interstate education policy alliance, businesses in Utah can’t find the STEM talent to remain competitive, which the organization attributes to “lagging performance” among K-12 students. While proficiency rates have risen slightly since 2003, other states have made much more progress. The average high school graduate in Utah is not ready for college-level math or science curricula, the commission says, adding that in the next 10 years, STEM jobs here will grow 25 percent, while the number of non-STEM jobs will grow by 20 percent.
While much has been done to foster STEM proficiency, much is left to do in making sure the supply of qualified students meets the demand for jobs in fields growing exponentially around the country and particularly in Utah, where tech firms are finding reasons to settle and grow. It’s a source of pride and accomplishment that high-level research in math and other fields is being conducted at higher-education institutions here. It would be ideal if investment in that kind of research carried a trickle-down effect to foster greater opportunity for students to enter STEM fields.
In that arena, one effort that deserves attention is the IT Pathways program announced earlier this year by Gov. Gary Herbert as part of his Talent Ready Utah initiative. The pathways program involves partnerships with tech companies to create a pipeline that can take kids from grade school through college and into internships and eventual employment at companies situated in what has become known as Silicon Slopes. The effort is new, so there are no available metrics to measure its potential success, but the concept is solid and its objective commendable. It’s a matter of pragmatism for companies in Utah’s tech sector, which led the nation in job growth in that field with a nearly 8 percent increase in 2016.
What public school students need to learn to get on solid STEM footing is a far cry from the kind of highbrow research into algebraic geometry for which the University of Utah’s math department has been recognized. The school deserves hearty congratulations for that accomplishment, while education leaders on all levels should see it as a measure of what the state is capable of in STEM education if resources and policy are properly aligned.