“An unconventional way to address our homegrown engineer shortage”

By: John Curtis

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A critical chapter in the story of Utah’s success over the last decade has been our growing tech and innovation sector. Silicon Slopes has become the envy of the world, as companies from across the country have come to enjoy our incredible business climate, impressive workforce and myriad soft drink offerings.

While tech leaders have much to celebrate about Utah, one common concern that I hear is the need for more “homegrown engineers.” Changes to our immigration laws that would allow more high-skilled workers are one key part of the solution, but we also must find a way to institutionalize and bolster STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education in our schools.

Utah tech leaders and lawmakers have taken a valuable step by committing to a worthy goal of having computer science courses in every Utah school by 2022. They’re putting their money where their mouths are as well by committing major funding toward this goal. This effort will not only strengthen our schools and eventually the companies these students go to work for, but I believe it has the potential to change lives by preparing students of all backgrounds, cultures and socioeconomic groups for higher paying jobs and futures.

I will support this effort in every way I can. I also believe we can make a real difference by fostering a cultural change and helping young people in Utah gain interest and passion for STEM subjects. Like the vast majority of students, I didn’t enjoy math in school. I remember wondering, as many do, how I would ever use complex formulas and equations in the real world. However, I believe that through extracurricular activities that show students the real-life relevance and application of science, technology, engineering and math in a fun, engaging and competitive environment, we can help foster that passion among students. You might be wondering what activity I’m referring to. The answer is robotics clubs, a growing pastime in many Utah schools.

Utah has an incredibly valuable resource in the “STEM Action Center,” which focuses on developing Utah’s workforce by “coordinating STEM-related activities, creating and supporting STEM education, facilitating educator access to education tools, and aligning public STEM education with higher-education STEM activities.” Supporting activities like robotics clubs is just one of many ways the STEM Action Center is helping Utah kids develop a genuine love and passion for the subjects that will make them competitive in our ever-changing global economy.

I’ve been proud to see students in Utah become engaged in robotics clubs and how for many, it has sparked interest in computer and programming careers. Just last August, students from the Navajo Nation in the southernmost part of my district were invited to an international robotics competition to create robots for energy generation, and at the end of this month, students from Lehi — who are also sisters — will compete for the VEX Robotics World Championship after taking first place in the state competition.

Utah is and will continue to consistently be one of the best states in the country for business. Addressing the skills gap and homegrown engineer shortage will take us even further, strengthen our schools and businesses and create more opportunities for all Utahns.

For as long as I am in Congress, I plan to visit schools in my district that have a robotics club and I look forward to seeing the brilliance in action. Who knows? As a self-described millennial at heart, perhaps more exposure to STEM subjects will help me find my next job.

John Curtis represents Utah’s 3rd Congressional District for the US Congress.