Opinion: STEM education is key to saving our planet

Teachers and parents must prepare the next generation to understand, predict and overcome environmental problems.

The world’s rapidly growing population has taken a toll on the environment. We have all seen the impact, including smog, waste and decreasing water levels — especially here in Utah, with the devastating drying up of the Great Salt Lake.

While there have been efforts to increase individual environmental responsibility and awareness, those efforts will never be enough. Humanity needs science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals who can provide innovative solutions at a planetary scale. And to develop these future workers, we need to focus on educating Utah’s children.

Teachers and parents must prepare the next generation to understand, predict and overcome environmental problems. It’s up to us to emphasize STEM concepts, starting in early childhood.

There are currently more than 10.3 million STEM jobs in the United States, and this number is expected to reach over 11.4 million by 2032. Many of these jobs will fall within the environmental sector and will contribute to mitigating environmental damage and advancing sustainability.

Currently, a wide range of STEM roles within the Department of Energy are dedicated to cleaning water sources, reducing carbon emissions, fighting pollution and finding ways to recycle and reduce waste. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, solar photovoltaic installers, wind turbine technicians and environmental and conservation scientists are projected to be among the fastest-growing fields.

There is also incredible opportunity in Utah — earlier this month, Texas Instruments broke ground on its new $11 billion, 300-mm semiconductor wafer fabrication plant in northern Utah County. Gov. Spencer Cox called the plant “the greatest single economic investment in the history of our state,” as it will create around 800 new high-paying jobs and thousands of indirect jobs in Lehi.

Today’s students need to prepare for these roles. At its core, STEM-related learning guides students to use innovation, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration. Because STEM has real-world connections, it raises social and environmental awareness.

Study after study shows exposing students to STEM concepts in early childhood helps them lay a foundation for knowledge. The Career Academy of Utah (CAU), for example, offers an engineering college and career prep pathway, which prepares children for careers as mechanical engineers, computer drafters, hazardous waste technicians and more.

The skills they develop in these career prep courses can be manipulated to provide real-world solutions to problems. Whether that’s changing the capabilities of technology or pushing the boundaries of science, STEM teaches students to adapt and overcome.

Today’s scientists and engineers can’t solve every problem we’ve created on Earth — and we will inevitably leave some of the cleaning up for the next generation. But we can prepare them with the skills and knowledge necessary to provide a cleaner, better future for generations to come.

Every child in this world has the potential to be a future leader and a problem solver, and it’s up to educators — whether we teach in traditional classrooms or online schools — to educate and prepare them for it.

Randi Putnam

Randi Putnam is the Career Readiness Educator Coordinator/School Counselor at the Career Academy of Utah (CAU).

The Salt Lake Tribune is committed to creating a space where Utahns can share ideas, perspectives and solutions that move our state forward. We rely on your contributions to do this. Find out how to share your opinion here, and email us at voices@sltrib.com.