What would it take to dramatically increase the number and preparedness of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students and teachers across New Mexico? Why is this even important?

New Mexico has a growing sector of STEM-focused jobs that have high starting salaries and the potential to dramatically grow the economy. However, there is a shortage of people who have the skills to fill these jobs, and there is a shortage of teachers to prepare students for that path.

In fact, last year New Mexico had a shortage of nearly 1,000 STEM teachers. The strategy here is two-fold: 1) increase the number of highly prepared STEM teachers, and 2) inspire more students to pursue STEM education and careers. Together, these will feed New Mexico’s STEM workforce.

What can we do to increase the number of STEM teachers in New Mexico? One answer is to support STEM teacher education programs. New Mexico Tech’s Master of Science for Teachers (MST) program is a unique program that offers scholarships to current teachers to advance their skills in science teaching, which also makes them eligible for higher salaries, according to New Mexico’s pay structure for teachers.

In fact, this makes them eligible for $70,000 for a nine-month contract.

NMT also has an education minor that STEM majors can pursue, which, coupled with the alternative licensure program (ALP), provides a pathway for STEM-savvy students to enter the teaching profession.

On top of that, NMT’s proposal to create a STEM Education Center has received a $5 million endowment award from the New Mexico Legislature. What this means is that NMT will be the epicenter of STEM education excellence for the state of New Mexico.

This amplifies the generous contributions of other faculty endowments that aim to improve STEM education in computer science as well as other STEM fields. In addition, many of these teachers have the opportunity to participate in summer research projects with NMT faculty mentors in the Research Experience for Teachers programs.

Teachers who participate in these education and research programs develop an authentic enthusiasm for science and scientific inquiry that is contagious to their students. Thus, they are amazing resources for igniting the interest and providing experiential learning opportunities for their students.

These opportunities – along with the capacity to further develop the STEM skills and identity – develops the students’ interests and preparation for STEM college and career opportunities.

Extracurricular activities such as Science Olympiad, science and engineering fairs, Supercomputing Challenge, robotics and drones programs and MESA (Math, Engineering and Science Achievement) are excellent opportunities for students to explore different skills and interests. All of these activities are supported by NMT’s STEM Outreach Office, which also helps connect teachers with professional development to effectively coach students in these challenges.

The overall impact is much more than preparing students to meet the STEM workforce demand. Participation in these activities helps students develop passion and perseverance, which is perhaps even more important than the specific skills they acquire in the competitions themselves.

It is exciting that New Mexico Tech is an emerging leader in STEM Education and Outreach, and it will be exciting to see how this not only impacts the entire state through the contribution of STEM teachers and a well-prepared workforce, but also how this will contribute to our own hometown, Socorro.

Sharon Sessions is a professor of physics and director of the Office of Outreach at New Mexico Tech.

Sharon Sessions, Guest Columnist