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Educators stressing career preparation in science and industry

| Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012

Until about a year ago, Clay Sheffield wasn't much into science -- just like a lot of classmates at Trafford Middle School, he said. Now he's thinking of careers in medicine, and maybe life as an army medic.

He started thinking differently last year in sixth grade, inspired by his science teacher's lessons about the great scientists who've studied the animal kingdom.

"When I thought about that, I thought about me going into that field and improving on their theories," said Sheffield, 12, of Trafford. "I made that connection with real life and thought, 'Maybe I can do that someday, too.'"

All around the region, science and education communities are trying to inspire thousands of other young people in the same way. Because of growing health and tech sectors, and a booming gas-drilling industry, professionals are worried about short- and long-term manpower shortages in scientific careers, even as more than 6 percent of Pittsburgh workers can't get a job.

That's led to a slew of new or beefed-up attempts at connecting some of the region's youngest students with career scientists, training new workers for new industry, and reinventing curriculum and science programs to emphasize hands-on learning and real-world applications.

Science can't just be about learning rote theories and equations anymore, said Ronald J. Baillie, co-director at the Carnegie Science Center.

"But that requires a really radical change in the way we teach," Baillie said last week as the center hosted the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's annual Science Bowl. "The schools we talk to here all realize that. But we hope that's not just a flicker in time and in five years it all fizzles out."

Reaching out for qualified employees

The region will have nearly 23,000 job openings in science occupations by 2016, according to employment data and projections from the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, a nonprofit consortium that promotes employment and education in the region. But, 2009 data, the latest available, show the region's universities and colleges are graduating about 10,000 people a year from science programs.

"I think every company struggles with that, just in terms of the talent out there," said Helena Nelligan, vice president of human resources at Eaton Corp.'s Electrical Sector Americas headquarters in Moon. "I think we've been pretty successful to secure the talent that we need ... but some of the issues that we face, we've got the baby boomers retiring and having the backup to fill some of those positions as they exit. I think that's something a lot of companies are facing that Eaton has a strategy for as well."

Part of that strategy was to join seven companies donating $1 million to the science center, which then announced the Chevron Center in December to coordinate science initiatives into a focused effort to help schools.

Here's the plan

The idea is to try to close the employment-education gap through early intervention by getting children to think positively about science careers years before they make decisions in seventh and eighth grades that will influence their career tracks.

Two of the first districts working with the Chevron Center are Upper St. Clair and Pine-Richland. Both are planning to build facilities to help reinvent the way they teach science.

Upper St. Clair might replace its old woodshop with a lab of industry-quality equipment, to open within the next three years, high school Principal Mike Ghilani said. The goal is to combine top-quality equipment with visits and guidance from industry professionals. Officials are still estimating the cost.

Pine-Richland is building a $35 million wing at its high school, largely devoted to its arts-infused science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum. Scheduled to be finished this spring, it will feature glass-walled classrooms in the center of each floor. That will showcase to students the hands-on, multidisciplinary work going on inside the technical-education and arts workshops, district officials said.

"We're trying to get away from the single departments that stand alone and do their own thing. ... Once (students) get out there in the real world, those activities are not as (isolated) as they are in education," Superintendent Mary Bucci said.

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit has been spending a $300,000 state grant to create a career education system that better connects employers and schools. It helped sponsor a career symposium last month at Avonworth Senior High School.

Fairs and job-shadowing are crucial, especially for children who may not know anyone working in science or whose parents may be quick to encourage them to switch to other subjects if they are struggling, Baillie said. More than 300 students from eight North Hills schools went to the event at Avonworth, school counselor David Como said.

"The number of internships, co-ops, job shadows and apprenticeships have been outstanding in the last five years," Como said. "There's been a lot more collaboration and teamwork with the private sector. ...There's been a lot of workshops that started with a lot of talk, but then all of a sudden, with support from school personnel and the employers, you saw action."

The region's community colleges are trying to fill jobs in construction and extraction, where there are an estimated 1,500 openings annually. The Allegheny Conference on Community Development helped colleges in three states obtain a $4.964 million federal grant to recruit and quickly train local workers for the growing drilling industry.

Brian Anderson, 25, of Upper St. Clair, graduated from the program, Marcellus ShaleNET, on Tuesday and immediately went to a job interview. He's hoping to leave a restaurant kitchen job for work as a rig hand or laborer in the drilling industry, making more than $40,000 annually, he said. The ShaleNET program should be introduced to more young people in school, he said.

"Basically I never had any focus on any type of industrial industry-type thing," Anderson said. "I just never saw that -- it was a pathway I never really even looked was never really something that crossed my mind."

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