Politicians love to talk about how investments in infrastructure can create jobs and can drive local economic development. In theory, it’s a great concept. But it seems like we’re missing an enormous opportunity in how these promises can actually lead to long-term, sustainable economic development. On a national, state, and local level, we are missing the opportunity to invest in our children’s futures as we invest in our infrastructure. Systems cannot be sustainable, nor can cities be smart, if they lack the human component.
Upgrading infrastructure — from roads and bridges to classrooms and office buildings — to be smarter and more sustainable requires highly educated architects, engineers, urban planners, and lots of highly skilled electricians, technicians, and operators. Sustainable infrastructure requires a cadre of people who take an interdisciplinary approach and effectively use systems thinking, data, and financial analysis. Even though the number of jobs in sustainability-related fields, and STEM fields more broadly, are growing rapidly, there are entire segments of American children who, by and large, are not entering these essential fields in the numbers needed.
Why? Schools, of course, are the places where children learn about the world and their unique place in it. But schools are also local infrastructure.
Right now, when schools invest in upgrades like renewable energy, xeriscaping, and energy efficiency, facilities departments design, manage, and implement projects without any student engagement. The work is usually done during the summertime, on holiday breaks, or after hours to avoid disrupting the learning process. But that’s backwards. If we really want and need children to be more excited about STEM-related fields, school upgrades are opportunities to expand the learning process, not disrupt it.
We’ve been testing this model out over the last year or so in several San Diego-area schools, specifically with energy-efficiency projects. We partner with the schools to upgrade their lights to much more efficient LED technology, and as a part of the partnership we do extensive student engagement through work-based learning and internships.
In the last year, we’ve trained 47 students in physics, engineering, and financial concepts like circuits, energy auditing, conservation, and cost-benefit analysis. Reflecting on our experiences so far, here are the most compelling reasons I see to leveraging infrastructure investments (like LED upgrades!) to provide the applied STEM education and workforce training our country needs so desperately:
Opportunities for students to apply abstract STEM concepts to real world problems are hard to come by, even though studies show it’s one of the best ways to get students engaged and excited. Over the last year, students in our partner schools have participated in curriculum that’s based on real infrastructure projects in their schools and classrooms. For example, students conduct cost-benefit analyses of upgrading to different energy efficiency technologies. So often, what’s needed to encourage a student to pursue a STEM-related field is for the student to experience the tangible outcomes of what she is studying in the classroom.
Some students are college bound while others are not. Going to college presents its own set of challenges; however, the challenges for career-bound students are more urgent. Turning infrastructure investments into workforce training enables immediate pathways for career-bound students. One of the most meaningful pieces of feedback we’ve received from a student in the past year or so was from Esteban G., who wrote, “Thank you for informing me of college alternatives. I think I’ll pursue a career as an electrician.”
The urgency to address climate change is increasing. If we, as a global community, do not significantly slow or stop climate change, we’re in trouble. To do this, we need to excite the next generation of sustainability and clean tech professionals. There’s no better way than through real, tangible projects that make a difference. At the end of one of our internships, 10 out of 20 students who participated wanted to study clean technology, sustainability, or energy as a direct result of our training.
Upgrading streetlights in your city? Installing leak detection sensors in your water system? Consider the opportunity to train or retrain residents as a part of the upgrade.
Like any proposal for public agencies like school districts or municipalities to do more, the immediate question is: but who pays?
It’s an important question, and some school districts, utilities and municipalities are getting creative. First off, there are some companies, like mine, that provide extensive education and workforce training as a part of their service offering. But NGOs and philanthropies are getting more and more involved. The best example of how a coalition of funding and implementation partners — including local government, federal government, philanthropy and NGOs — can come together may be the Milwaukee Sewerage District green infrastructure training program. The workforce training & infrastructure program has been so successful that it’s being replicated in cities like Washington, D.C. and Chicago.
Everyone knows, if only intuitively, that there are colossal economic shifts occurring in our country, transforming everything from how we learn to how we order at fast food restaurants. These shifts demand a different kind of workforce — one that is highly skilled and highly technical. But we’re not capitalizing on the opportunity to leverage infrastructure investments for workforce training and STEM education. To do so, we need to go back to school. The futures of American children, and American infrastructure, may just depend on it.