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Few acronyms developed such ubiquity in the world of education as STEM. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math became the 21st-century buzzwords surrounding education in a world dominated by computers and a growing sense that Asian academia has started to surpass the United States when it came to providing young people the skills to thrive in a digital future. On the Gulf Coast alone, millions have been spent to turn most middle school classrooms into technology labs. Economic development leaders rallied around business incubators focused on creating tech jobs and foundations directed resources into workforce education at all levels. So what’s the region have to show for it? For sure, it’s earned some hype. Representatives from Microsoft and Texas Instruments use Sarasota County schools as test ground for education technology. The University of Florida set up satellite programs for engineering and architecture, while Florida State University opened a regional campus for its College of Medicine. Companies like Voalte launched—and remained—in Greater Sarasota. Yet, a national listing recently ranked the North Port-Bradenton-Sarasota area among the worst in the nation for STEM professionals.

Meanwhile, leaders in a community rich with culture started to decry to promotion of the left brain over the right. The concept of STEAM—adding an ‘A’ for the Arts—gained figurative steam as an enhancement, if not an outright alternative, to a focus on formulas. In a world of virtual reality, won’t there need to be as many animators as coders? In a world where people hopefully live active lives into their 90s, won’t you need fresh ideas in the medical world as much as a background in biology. The concept of innovation continues to hold the same level of reverence in the digital age as the industrial, but how can one innovate if the analytical exists without the spark of creativity? “Sarasota prides itself on being a community that appreciates good design,” says Nancy Roucher, a board member of the Arts Alliance of Sarasota County. “We need to teach kids to make judgments on what they like, why they like it and what speaks to them. STEM should be STEAM.”



The efforts to empower educators in STEM fields in Sarasota generated more than its share of positive headlines through the years. The Gulf Coast Community Foundation. in 2009 launched its STEMsmart initiative to the envy of educators around the nation. Armed with research showing the region, state and country as a whole lagged behind some developing nations in terms of its math and science offerings, the foundation took a donation from Charles and Margery Barancik, who first committed $2.5 million to the Sarasota and Charlotte county school districts to prepare rigorous new standards for science and math. The ultimate result of the efforts became “Classrooms of Tomorrow,” TechActive classrooms that not only became equipped with high-end computers and audio-visual equipment but were redesigned into clusters to encourage collaboration among students.

From a pilot program at Sarasota Middle to installation at every science and math class in Sarasota County, the program drew national attention from corporations interested in cutting edge education. Texas Instruments provided special wi-fi calculators the allowed teachers to check students math or to project the most efficient problem solving techniques onto big screens. Microsoft tested online classroom software.  And the funding for STEMsmart grew from that $2.5-million pilot effort into an $11.5-million initiative. 

Today, the Baranciks have launched their own foundation, incidentally recruiting former Gulf Coast CEO Teri Hansen to run it, and have continued to work with Gulf Coast to propel the effort forward. “When we launched STEMsmart, we had no idea it would grow into what it became,” Hansen says. “Philanthropy provided the start-up capital, but the teachers and students showed us what was possible, and STEMsmart became a movement.” And it attracted the attention of state institutions as well. In March of 2016, University of Florida President Kent Fuchs announced at a Sarasota press conference that a planned Innovation Station here will funnel engineering students and graduates into internships and jobs in the state. The opening of the extension campus for UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering will be the first of six to eight similar programs in Florida and was sold as a major ‘game-changer’ for the university and this community. “So many times over the past year, I have seen students graduate from the University of Florida and leave for Atlanta or the West Coast,” Fuchs said. “This is critical for the community.”

The satellite campus was attracted here in part thanks to $1 million in economic incentives by Sarasota County, a $980,0000 grant from the Barancik Foundation and an additional $63,000 grant by Gulf Coast, along with an additional $1 million provided by the University of Florida. UF tapped retired Sun Hydraulics CEO Allen Carlson to lead the new institution, and rallied economic development officials around the fact they now had a better answer as to where new employers might find properly trained workers in tech-driven fields. Employers and alunni working in the region celebrated the move. “We already naturally pull engineers from UF,” says Trey Lauderdale, CEO for Voalte and a UF graduate who in 2004 earned his bachelor’s in industrial engineering and then earned a master of science and engineering from the university’s Warrington College of Business. Lauderdale says having an extension campus in Sarasota will raise the visibility of local companies like Voalte among engineering students and provide the opportunity for students to get internships and jobs at local companies instead of hunting for work out of state. Sammy Abernathy, dean of the College of Engineering, says Sarasota will be a good location for the extension campus because it has a climate that will nurture the industry. She predicts there will eventually be 50 to 60 students doing internships and co-ops arranged through the Innovation Station, and also noted that by being involved in K-12, it will drive more students toward engineering fields. “This is a very holistic approach to being a talent pipeline,” she says. 

But for all the multi-million investments in STEM, there’s been disappointment. A WalletHub study released in January shows the North Port-Bradenton-Sarasota metropolitan area as the second worst out of 100 in the nation for STEM professionals. Does the report expose genuine shortcomings on the Gulf Coast? In some ways, yes, according to many of these pushing hard for improvements, but there’s also plenty of skepticism about the data.

Mark Pritchett, who worked as vice president of the Gulf Coast foundation and shepherded the STEMsmart initiative from infancy to accolades before being promoted to president and CEO of the foundation after Hansen’s departure, says the WalletHub study is part wake-up call and part reality check. In truth, the data reveals similar findings about the region’s challenges. But he stresses people should look at more than the overall ranking. For example, the study found the region scored 26th in STEM employment growth and in median wage growth for STEM workers. “You’ve got to build a foundation before you see results,” Pritchett says. “It’s a long play, and it takes a while.”

The Gulf Coast Community Foundation has raised funding for the Sarasota County schools to put technology-enhanced classrooms for science and math throughout the district, providing a better STEM education atmosphere starting in some places as young as 5th grade, but it will take years for those students to bring their skills into the workforce.

And multiple leaders cited a community partnership with the University of Florida to open the Innovation Station here. Carlson notes the Gainesville university is now a Top 10 research institution, and the local presence will connect companies with school resources. Innovation Station works to place interns from the UF engineering program, and to provide education classes in the county to UF students working toward a degree. And the recent opening of the school should help with one part of the WalletHub study where Sarasota gets knocked; this area ranks 62nd in terms of quality engineering universities. He says the Innovation Station two years after the major announcement by UF has already started successfully connecting interns studying at the Gainesville university with employers doing high-tech work in Sarasota, Bradenton and the entire Tampa Bay region. And the region remains a better area than ever to start a major company. “It’s much easier today to start up a company than ever, and where you want to start is also where you want to vacation and live or where you grew up,” he says. That means long-term, the region boasts a great deal of potential.

All this shows philanthropic leaders that investment in STEM tackles the region's great challenges. From that viewpoint, Greg Luberecki, Gulf Coast Community Foundation communication director, says the WalletHub study shows more work is needed, not less. “Overall the data has shown and we’ve known for a decade now,” he says. “We do have to invest in stem skills for jobs of the future.” Of course, some leaders didn’t put much weight in the data at all. Mark Huey, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, pointed instead at a different study by the Milken Institute that ranked Sarasota as the sixth best performing city in the nation based on economic growth. And Carlson says while some of the WalletHub numbers seemed right, some did not, and he didn’t buy the region should be near the bottom of the list.

Luberecki notes some of the parameters of the study correctly spotlighted problems, for example noting the metro area was 98th in the region in terms of housing affordability. But then that data cuts more than one way. “Those challenges in housing affordability rise because of the excellent quality of life we have here,” he says. And Pritchett isn’t sure Sarasota will ever join tech-heavy cities like Seattle, Boston, Pittsburgh or Austin, the top four metro areas on the list, simply because the existing economy was built on other cornerstones like hospitality. “We’ll always be a service economy,” he says. But that doesn’t mean the region shouldn't strive to diversify and improve. “There are certain things happening that are changing things,” Pritchett says. “But you don’t just flip a switch and see it happen overnight.” But arts leaders also see the potential to show the shortcomings of focusing exclusively on science and math. Why not inject the economy now with STEAM?



There’s likely no greater cheerleader for the concept of STEAM than Dr. Larry Thompson, the long-time president of Ringling College of Art and Design. He says the secret to improving the prospects of tomorrow’s science and math professionals lies in unlocking their ability to think like an artist. “When I talk to students at Ringling College when they first come here, I call them survivors,” he says. “They have survived an education system that tends to tamper down creativity. But if they can retain that creative element, they will blossom and use that idea generation and get the skillsets to whatever discipline they engage in.” The manifestation of Ringling’s approach to STEAM may best be rendered in the new virtual reality major, just launched this fall at the school. Thompson notes that the program boasts the first VR curriculum in the country focused on content, not code. What use is a set of goggles, Thompson notes, if there’s nothing worthwhile to see inside? So he takes the world-class animation and filmmaking skills already being cultivated at the Sarasota college and wants the same innovation, storytelling and illustration techniques transferred into an explorable 3-D environment. Since Ringling has largely set itself apart in the world of art schools through high-tech programs like video game art, the education approach with VR seems to be already proven in advance.

But even beyond explicitly artistic fields, a number of professionals from a  variety of industries see reason to better integrate arts into STEM education. Bill Waddill, who right now serves as managing director of The Bay master planning process in Sarasota, says over more than three decades working in planning and consulting, he saw creativity set the most successful employees apart. “There are a lot of really smart college graduates who come out in the engineering field that can handle the math and science required,” Waddill says. “But it can be hard to find someone who can do all that but can also creatively solve problems.” Waddill, who graduated with a landscape architecture degree himself, feels the design classes in his educational curriculum helped provide the right skills to set himself apart. He’d like to see greater stress in STEM-related curricula on the importance of developing new things. “When you add the arts, it forces the mind to think of things in creative ways,” he says. “Problems are not just a matter of crunching the math.” 

Brian Hersh, director of the Any Given Child program in the Sarasota County schools, says the connection between the seemingly opposite skillsets makes the promotion of STEAM important. “The question really is how is arts education connected to science, technology, engineering and math?,” Hersh says. “We are looking for a holistic education, and looking for outcomes to ensure students can integrate knowledge across many disciplines and content areas.” That’s not limited exclusively to the STEM-versus-STEAM debate, Hersh stresses, but figuring out exactly how to incorporate analytical and creative coursework must be addressed to prepare students for success after they graduate.

Pritchett, for his part, has heavily explored ways to take the success of STEMsmart to employ in the liberal arts as well. When English and social studies teachers in Sarasota middle schools expressed envy at the funding pouring into the STEM programs, Gulf Coast started the process of expanding the TechActive classrooms to be used in those core study areas as well. Now, literature classes involve internet searches for academic interpretation of texts that can be scoured in real time by students, and AV equipment employed successfully to check calculations and formulas also gets used to explore historic timelines and geographic maps.

At the same time, Hersh stresses that folks on both sides of the debate desire the same basic goals. The greater mission should not necessarily be promoting arts above all, but ensuring students can connect the variety of skills they learn during their time in school. When any discussion of STEM or STEAM education fades, educators will still need to constantly work toward integrating subject matters together and making sure students value all parts of any curriculum. “It’s really about connecting and learning in multiple discipline areas,” he says. “That gives you a depth of knowledge and deeper meaning and understanding of everything.”

STEAM advocates don’t want to advance arts in favor of science and math they say, just as STEM supporters don’t seek to demean creative fields. The goal, all agree, should be bringing students in Gulf Coast schools to the top of whatever field they embark upon.