UA, Partners Address STEM Workforce Pathways

March 29, 2017

The STEM Learning Center has collaborated with on- and off-campus partners, including Career Services and a Microsoft program, to improve STEM pipeline building in southern Arizona.


A streamlined process has launched in southern Arizona to more easily connect University of Arizona students with companies offering internships and help high schools start and grow a sustainable computer science program.

The UA's STEM Learning Center and its partners have introduced these and other initiatives in direct response to findings in "Southern Arizona's Tech Workforce: Supply and Demand." The center commissioned the report, projecting the number of science, technnology, engineering and mathematics jobs to be posted in Pima County — along with the number of UA graduates ready to enter those disciplines — through 2020.

Findings of the report indicate that, with the exception of computer science, the UA graduates more than enough STEM graduates to meet the needs of local employers. However, 80 percent of projected job postings require two more years of industry experience, which graduates do not always have.

"If our STEM graduates can't get entry-level positions locally because they lack the requisite two years of industry experience, they are likely to out-migrate from the region and not return," said Martha Ostheimer, assistant director of the STEM Learning Center.

To address this regional issue, the STEM Learning Center partnered with the UA's Career Services, STEM career advisers located in various UA colleges and also local businesses to streamline a process and timeline for businesses to post internships for STEM majors via a centralized website. Students can view internship postings on the site and post resumes, allowing representatives of regional businesses to review their materials.

In the first year since launching this process, the number of STEM internships that were posted for positions in Arizona increased by more than 23 percent, Ostheimer said.

From Internship to Full-Time Job

UA graduating senior Morgan Struble, a mechanical engineering major, was one of the students hired as an intern.

Struble, who also is studying mining and geological engineering, landed an internship with Arizona Public Service. She spent three months with the company, working as a fossil generation intern.

"I was immediately treated like part of the family at APS. Everyone was so willing to take time to help me learn all I could. Making these connections and gaining the knowledge I did will help me in my future positions as an engineer," said Struble, who is from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

The internship helped her land a full-time job after graduation. She will serve as an engineer at Redhawk Power Station in Buckeye, Arizona.

"My internship at APS was extremely beneficial," she said. "With everyone's help, I was able to make great progress on my assigned projects, and I think that this really radiated with the company and helped me get a job."

Another important finding of the STEM Learning Center report was that southern Arizona requires more graduates that are ready for careers in computer science and information technology. Within the last six months, 750 jobs in computer science have been posted in Pima County each month, with only half of them being filled,  Ostheimer said.

In response, the UA center is now working with Microsoft-supported Technology Education and Literacy in Schools, or TEALS, a program offered in more than 25 states, pairing information technology professionals with high school teachers to co-teach computer science classes. 

During the current academic year, TEALS is being piloted at Sunnyside, Desert View and Presidio high schools. UA students and industry professionals team-taught intro to computer classes, marking "the first time that computer science has been taught in these high schools," Ostheimer said.

"At Sunnyside, 90 students signed up for the class," she said, adding that the program has been popular in all of the partner schools. Next year, AP computer science classes will be added at Sunnyside and Desert View high schools, and plans are underway to start computer science classes at high schools in at least three additional districts.

Giving Back to the Community

Aaron Woodward signed up as a student volunteer with the TEALS program during the current academic year and co-taught an introductory course focused on programming.

"I became interested because I saw it as an enjoyable way to contribute to the community," said Woodward, a UA junior majoring in computer science. He is also a student software developer aiding scientists working on the UA's OSIRIS-REx mission, the asteroid sample return mission that launched in September.

Woodward said he also was compelled to join TEALS because he sees value in mentoring youth.

"I couldn't be where I am today without the mentors I've had in my life, and find it important to provide mentoring whenever," said Woodward, also president of the UA chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

The program also will expand in the fall of 2017 to involve the Ha:sañ Preparatory & Leadership School for Tohono O'odham youth, Las Artes Youth Art Program and Pima Vocational High School. The focus now is on underserved and underrepresented student populations.

"Working with the STEM Learning Center, with their rich network of local partners, has allowed us at Microsoft Social Catalyst to really delve deep into the Tucson community," said Seattle-based Steven Tran, the Microsoft Social Catalyst program manager. 

"It's inspiring to see how many students have already expressed an interest in working with these local facilities and using their academic skills to benefit others," Tran said. "Teaching intro CS (computer science) to high school freshmen as a former TEALS volunteer was a highlight of each week for me, and I'm excited to share the experience with the UA."

The STEM Learning Center, in collaboration with Microsoft, is currently recruiting UA students to be involved in the fall. The center's team also is pursuing a 100% Engagement designation so that students can receive an engagement certification on their transcripts. The center also is collaborating with the Tucson mayor's office to recruit more information technology professionals to co-teach computer science teachers in the additional high schools.

UA students will form cohorts of four to six, and each group will be matched with an educator at the three partner schools. Using the established TEALS curriculum, students will plan and deliver lessons and will attend bimonthly meet-ups to discuss and reflect on their experiences. Students also will attend class in-person up to twice a week and coordinate with their teammates for out-of-class meetings.

"This is a great opportunity for our students to have real impact in our community and hopefully also increase the number of students who are engaged and excited about computer science," Ostheimer said.

Lilly Berkley, a UANews Student Associate, contributed to this article.

Martha Ostheimer