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Weekend edition November 11, 2022 | Tom Ballard

BioTN undertaking assessment of state’s STEM readiness

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

BioTN, the separate but closely aligned sibling of Life Science Tennessee (LST), is undertaking a comprehensive assessment of the Volunteer State’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) readiness with the goal of making recommendations to ensure a pipeline of future talent.

For the technology and innovation-rich greater Knoxville region, having well-trained STEM talent is an absolutely essential component in building the ecosystem of the future.

Alan Coverstone, Credit: Belmont University

In a virtual briefing earlier this week, Abby Trotter, who serves as Executive Director of both BioTN and LST, introduced Alan Coverstone and Laura Encalade, two consultants who are conducting the assessment for BioTN. A former Assistant Professor at Belmont University in Nashville and later a Senior Program Officer with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Coverstone is now with Covariant Education Consulting. Encalade, who is now as an Assistant Professor at Lipscomb University, spent a number of years with the Tennessee State Board of Education and the Tennessee Department of Education.

Their plan is to have Phase I completed and the findings released in January. Those will include an analysis of education and programmatic progress and outcomes in Tennessee STEM education, trends and comparative data to understand the current state of STEM education across Tennessee, and the impact of key policies and programs on the outcomes. Phase II, which includes the recommendations, will be unveiled before the General Assembly concludes its work in the spring.

In a one-pager describing the purpose of the briefing, BioTN wrote that it “is committed to building the next wave of biotechnology-related STEM professionals by promoting STEM education across Tennessee. We believe that support for STEM education should be expanded through programs, schools and organizations across the state. BioTN’s long-term vision is to double the number of Tennessee’s middle and high school students interested in pursuing STEM-related post-secondary education and to increase by 30 percent the number of middle and high school students academically prepared to pursue STEM-related post-secondary education.”

Trotter doubled down on the need for STEM-trained talent, noting that “biotech jobs pay nearly twice as much as other jobs. Scientific education helps our industry as well as others.”

Laura Encalade, Credit: LinkedIn

Later, Encalade (pictured here from her LinkedIn profile) painted what she characterized as a “bleak picture,” explaining that Tennessee has recorded a one percent decline in recent years in the number of students pursuing baccalaureate and sub-baccalaureate programs and a .5 percent decline in STEM programs specifically.

Yet, to meet job growth needs, the Volunteer State needs to increase its workforce by 11.4 percent by 2026 and a whopping 21.6 percent in STEM areas alone.

There was some positive news. Coverstone cited comparisons of Tennessee recently and several years ago in science and math at the fourth-grade level. Volunteer State students are now performing on par with 29 other states which is an improvement from the past.

The reports will:

  • Assess Tennessee’s current student outcomes in STEM-related subjects, both holistically and across identified subgroups (Phase I report);
  • Assess the impact of the “Race to the Top program on STEM education (Phase I report); and
  • Identify best practices and opportunities for industry partnerships and school-to-school collaboration and recommend resources and programs to improve STEM-related educational opportunities (Phase II report).

The long-term goal is to position BioTN and its industry partners as a statewide resource for STEM programs. In that vein, Trotter is seeking industry sponsors for the study.

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