STEM and Workforce Development in Florida and Georgia

In mid-August, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders visited Florida and Georgia to engage with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) technical leaders. We started off by visiting the HSU Educational Foundation to learn about how its staff have engaged with youths, teachers and educators about STEM in Okaloosa County, in northwest Florida. It was particularly interesting to see how the foundation has been able to weave culture and soft skills into STEM activities. The foundation hosted a community convening on STEM Education and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), which included Okaloosa County commissioners, AAPI students and parents, school administrators, representatives from the Okaloosa School District, the Okaloosa Economic Development Council and chambers of commerce, Eglin Air Force Base officials, and industry leaders – all focused on STEM career readiness.  Several participants described their models of collaborative, public-private partnerships that aim to engage young students in the STEM concepts and skills that will be necessary to compete for high-demand technology jobs in the future. An eight-year-old student demonstrated her coding skills in operating a drone remotely from software code that she wrote on her computer. Executive Director Holly Ham shared the Initiative’s work on STEM, its engagement with the State-Federal STEM Summit and the development of the 2018 Five-Year STEM Strategic Plan. It was a vibrant gathering of a small, strong community that is closely knit by its vision and desire to work collaboratively for the continued development and improvement of Okaloosa’s economic and workforce future.

A parent and military spouse shares her background and science education during a STEM community convening in Okaloosa County.

We continued the STEM and workforce dialogue with our visit to Eglin Air Force Base, under the command of Brigadier General Evan Dertien, and the 96th Test Wing. Situated on 724 square miles, Eglin is the largest U.S. Air Force Base, containing eight wings, with over 20,000 personnel and generating $2.75 billion in economic impact. Jeri McClung, director of the 96th Range Group at the Air Force Test Center in the Air Force Materiel Command, provided a mission briefing on Team Eglin’s diverse mission sets and partners, and the necessary learning and development of its military members to ensure mission success. The wing provides expert evaluation and validation of the performance of systems throughout the design, development, acquisition and maintenance process to ensure that its warfighters have technologically superior, reliable and safe systems. John James with the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) provided an overview of the lab, highlighting science and technology activities. The research and development performed at the AFRL focus on user needs by applying leading-edge technology with state-of-the-art weaponry to ensure a dramatic impact on the outcome of any given strike mission. An added highlight of our visit at Eglin AFB was the opportunity to have an informal lunch and lively conversation with Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) members of the military community, both active duty military and civil servants.  They shared their experiences as students of Career and Technical Education (CTE) on base,  discussed their learning and career goals for the near future, and described how the base is assisting them as they transition from the military workforce into good civilian jobs, utilizing the technological skills and expertise they have honed while active service members.

Meeting AANHPI active duty military personnel at Eglin Air Force Base and learning about their STEM/CTE workforce experiences and career goals.

From Florida, we went to neighboring Georgia and visited the metro Atlanta area. We met with OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates and AAPI corporate leaders, and discussed employee resources at major corporations. Their workforce needs are similar to AAPI employees’ needs in the federal government, such as mentoring, career planning and opportunity to perform. We also engaged with the Center for Pan Asian Community Services (CPACS), which we toured, and dialogued with Chief Executive Officer Chaiwon Kim, Vice President Victoria Huynh and other CPACS team members. CPACS is a nonprofit that promotes self-sufficiency and equity for immigrants, refugees and the underprivileged through comprehensive health and social services, capacity building and advocacy. We learned about their humble beginnings as a modest Korean social services center and about the depth of its outreach to tens of thousands of clients—AAPI and non-AAPI—today. From CPACS, we journeyed over to Circle of Love Adult Day Health Center, an adult day care that provides a warm, highly engaged and active environment for seniors. We listened in on an English literacy civics class where the students (in this case, all seniors!) were practicing their English in preparation for their upcoming U.S. citizenship test.

A 100-year old member at the Circle of Love with Alfred Yin, founder, and Holly Ham.

Our next visit was to Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology (GSMST) where Asian students make up 44 percent of the total student population. Principal IV Bray provided a comprehensive tour of the campus–showcasing a state-of-the-art video studio, a biology laboratory and classrooms that are inspiring, collaborative and rich with technologies that enhance the learning environment. GSMST offers language immersion classes in Chinese, German and Spanish, and has a highly integrated and accelerated STEM curriculum that directly addresses the growing deficit of qualified workers in STEM fields. Our visit to GSMST highlighted the importance of language immersion and STEM education as a strong combination of skills for future professionals.

Executive Director Holly Ham (center) with Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology (GSMST) Principal IV Bray, GSMST students and a Chinese language instructor. Language and STEM intertwine nicely at GSMST to help prepare the student to be the worker of the future.

Our visits would not be complete without a community convening, during which the Initiative engages members to touch upon the issues of high importance for them and their communities.  In this case, our community convening focused on language access and pathways to citizenship. Held at Norcross City Hall, we had a cross section of AAPI leaders from metro Atlanta representing industries, non-profits, educators and federal employees. A representative from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provided an overview of the naturalization process and how to become a U.S. citizen. Executive Director Ham shared the Initiative’s work in language access and a strategic area of focus on immigration and pathways to citizenship for refugees, immigrants and students.  Additional topics of importance to the local AAPI communities were touched upon, including the cost of higher education and affordability, public safety, health concerns, safety net for new arrivals and affordable housing, especially in growing neighborhoods in Atlanta. Joe Phillips, Regional Network Co-Lead of region 4, facilitated the dialogue, and the Initiative’s federal partners from Housing and Urban Development, Federal Emergency Management Agency, USCIS, and the Social Security Administration were present to address the community’s questions.

A community convening focused on language access and the naturalization process.

The Initiative’s strong engagement in Florida and Georgia – from the shores of Florida’s northwest Gulf Coast to the vibrant outskirts of Atlanta – enabled Executive Director Ham to connect communities with the Initiative’s focus areas and to highlight its mutual work toward common goals to enrich the lives of all Americans, including Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Debra Suarez is Senior Advisor at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.