I applaud Missoula County Public School's and the University of Montana's Pre-K-20 Education Initiative. This joint effort between the private sector and educational system helps define important improvements necessary to create a 21st century educational system in Montana.
As an engineer, I believe that fostering a career vision in young students and offering a practical path for achievement in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics is a key to our economic future. A clear path is needed for all students to achieve at their highest interest level and potential. We need to provide a seamless transition between Pre-K-12 education, the associate degree and the bachelor's degree in arts or sciences. Breaking down the traditional institutional barriers that exist in education will allow all of our students to achieve at their own pace, remain in school and pursue advanced degrees.
Of significant concern is the growing disparity between the United States and emergent countries like China and India in the STEM disciplines. In the United States, almost 30 percent of people holding engineering and sciences degrees are 50 years or older and will soon retire. Americans now pursuing engineering degrees have decreased 20 percent since 1985. In contrast, students seeking engineering degrees in China and India have doubled since 2005. I see firsthand education affecting my profession, our ability to hire qualified staff and our country's ability to compete in the global market place.
Our future economic well-being will be founded on our ability to create new technology. New technologies in transportation, energy and communications will continue to revolutionize the way we live and will help solve our biggest problems. Unless something changes, the United States will fall behind in our historic role as leaders in technology development. Although there has been some national attention to our STEM shortfall, the problem must be addressed on the local level and in the home.
We must improve our educational standards in math and sciences. I was shocked to learn that 30 percent of students entering the University of Montana require remedial coursework in math or science. Our university system is expending precious resources for students to complete their high school education. We need to consider higher minimum standards for high school graduation and admission into the university system.
When I hear about studies showing that we "lose" kids in the transitions between middle school, high school and college, the issue hits home. I was in eighth grade when I was encouraged to take advanced placement mathematics by a dedicated public school teacher. Little did I know at the time, but that encouragement directly affected my prospects of becoming an engineer. The engineering curriculum is challenging and a sound foundation in mathematics, specifically calculus, is critical to complete the chemistry, physics and engineering mechanics coursework required. My rigorous high school curriculum in mathematics well prepared me for college calculus and differential equations, and gave me the foundation necessary to learn the sciences and become an engineer.
An important strategy of the initiative is to strengthen the College of Technology by expanding the curriculum and providing state-of-the-art facilities in which to learn. This will make it more attractive to students and improve the learning environment. Engineers and technicians work hand in hand. We need a strong technologies educational system to supplement our excellent engineering programs. The COT offers associate degrees that lead to jobs in applied disciplines such as computers, medicine, electronics and energy technology. Providing modern facilities and equipment for a 21st century education is critical for all levels of education.
I am personally committed to helping our youth achieve careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This legislative session, please ask elected officials and legislators to improve education by providing funding for teachers, educational infrastructure and new technology. Investment now will help to create a seamless Pre-K-20 education system, improve our ability to compete in a global economy, and create quality jobs in Montana.
Brent Campbell is president and CEO of WGM Group Inc., and writes from Missoula.