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June 19, 2014

Summit highlights the science of job growth

By Denise Richardson Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Area business owners and managers joined educators Wednesday to find a formula for matching students with STEM, jobs of the future.

Elements of the equation include classroom instruction, mentoring, job shadowing, degree programs, internships, and more, according to speakers and participants at a Workforce/Education Summit in Oneonta on Wednesday.

However, several educators in attendance also cited challenging factors facing students, including poverty, the need for core courses and for time to mature.

About 65 representatives from school districts, colleges, companies, health care providers and economic development groups and others met for the first such summit presented by Career Opportunities in Rural Education. The program was in the Morris Conference Center at the State University College at Oneonta.

The program focused on job and career opportunities in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and how to prepare students for employment in current and future fields.

“We have a lot of economic development groups working separately,” said Liz Rickard, director of CORE, an initiative launched in 2011 by Milford Central School to serve as a regional hub for educational opportunities and career advancement.

Rickard said the summit was designed to bring the economic development groups and educators together to “connect the dots” in efforts to establish a “pipeline” of prepared workers who can find employment locally. CORE is a catalyst toward making connections, identifying needs and providing training and educational opportunities, she said.

Education administrators from Laurens, Milford and Edmeston central schools reviewed local programs, either established or under development, to provide advanced instruction in STEM topics and exposure to different jobs and career fields.

Brian Hunt, superintendent of Edmeston Central School, said the process includes stimulating interests of students by showing them real-world applications of lessons they learn in school.

Ken Tompkins, a regional director with Empire State Development reviewed goals of the Mohawk Valley Regional Economic Development Council. While educators are preparing pupils to become contributing citizens who lead meaningful lives, a tandem goal must be to give them access to jobs in the marketplace or the means to create new jobs, he said.

Another goal is to create an economy with jobs that will encourage students to stay in New York and in the Mohawk Valley, including local counties, instead of moving out of state and taking their skills and ideas with them, Tompkins said.

Several educators speaking during a panel discussion emphasized the necessity for students be prepared in core courses.

For example, a student taking a general science course on forensics may be inspired to pursue a career in that field, they said. But without taking basic biology or chemistry courses, the student may take a college course, receive a poor grade and become discouraged.

“There are core courses for a reason,” said panelist Andrew Peifer, associate professor of chemistry and chairman of the health professions advisory committee for Hartwick College in Oneonta.

Bob Mackey, superintendent at Unadilla Valley Central School, said 70 percent of the district’s students live in poverty and struggle daily to find three meals a day and survive.

“The culture of our region doesn’t have the highest emphasis on learning,” Mackey said in reaction to the panel presentation. “How do we turn that around so that learning is held in high esteem?”

Venkat Sharma, dean of natural and mathematical sciences for SUNY Oneonta, said students have different learning styles, live in “an instant-gratification society” and may not appreciate learning if they are hungry. He suggested reaching out to students to help them learn.

Mack replied: “It’s the adults in our community that we need to win over.”

Keith Schillo, associate professor of biology at SUNY Oneonta, in response to the panel discussion, cautioned about the over-emphasis on skills sets with young pupils. Students need time to mature and gain life experiences to handle college level challenges, he said. “Students know early on that they need to focus on a career,” Schillo said. “You have to keep in mind that they are young.”

Kristin Kulow, a certified academic life coach, said encouraging students to be aware of themselves as individuals is important. Helping them identify values and strengths can be a process that involves adults and families, she said, and pupils also need social skills to be able to interact and ask questions as they pursue interests.

Megan Ackley, SUNY Oneonta internship coordinator, urged listeners to be creative about identifying internship opportunities for students. SUNY Oneonta has internship and community service programs for students with Ioxus, Corning, the city of Oneonta and Otsego County, among other local entities, and she said other businesses and groups are welcome to participate.

The summit was sponsored by CDO Workforce, SUNY Oneonta and the Otsego County Chamber of Commerce.