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Originally published Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 8:06 PM

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Briefing on science, math education finds lawmakers already singing the tune

An advocacy group for science and math education hosted a Capitol briefing Tuesday for members of Washington’s congressional delegation. But the five lawmakers who showed up needed no persuasion to support revamping and improving education for future engineers and programmers.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

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WASHINGTON — It was billed as a briefing for members of Washington’s congressional delegation and their staff members about the dismal state of science and math education in American public schools.

But it was obvious just minutes into Tuesday’s event at the U.S. Capitol that the lawmakers needed no warning from Microsoft and other technology employers that Washington state and the nation need to revamp the way they educate future engineers and computer programmers.

Five of the state’s 12 members of Congress showed up to speak in support of improving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education — an issue Microsoft and other high-tech companies have linked to the current debate on immigration reform, including raising quotas on temporary work visas for foreigners with specialty skills like computer science.

By one measure, Washington has the nation’s highest concentration of STEM jobs. But the state ranks near the bottom in the proportion of students enrolled in graduate programs in engineering and science, and the gap between the growth in jobs requiring STEM skills and people qualified to fill them is estimated to be growing faster than in any state except Delaware.

“As a state, we are not nearly doing what we need to do,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel.

Smith is a founding board member of Washington STEM, a 2-year-old advocacy group that organized the briefing and which is funded by some of Washington state’s powerhouse corporations and philanthropies, including Boeing, Microsoft, Safeco, the Gates Foundation and the Bezos Family Foundation.

Smith reeled off statistics about the dearth of STEM learning, particularly among women and minorities. Of Washington’s 771 high schools, for instance, 35 offer advanced-placement computer-science courses.

And the University of Washington’s well-regarded computer-science department, Smith said, lacks capacity to expand enrollment despite being within 10 miles of thousands of computer-related jobs.

Reversing that “is the single best and most important opportunity we have in Washington state to grow our economy,” said Smith, who has been spearheading Microsoft’s push on Capitol Hill for more H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers.

The hourlong panel discussion was hosted by the offices of Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane. Neither lawmaker could attend the event.

But five of their colleagues trooped to the Capitol Visitor Center to endorse enhanced STEM education. They were Reps. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, a former Microsoft executive; Rick Larsen, D-Everett; Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor; and Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas; and Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell.

Smith and the other panelists called STEM education a foundational skill that is in increasing demand not only in technology fields, but in auto manufacturing, logistics and other industries.

Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools, said getting students hooked on STEM courses should begin before elementary school. But she later bemoaned the fact that Washington does not even guarantee free all-day kindergarten classes.

Smith said advocates are willing to give the federal government money to fund STEM education. Last year, Microsoft floated a plan to raise $500 million a year by charging $10,000 for each of 20,000 supplemental H-1B visas and $15,000 each for 20,000 additional green cards allocated for skilled foreigners.

The current annual quota on H-1B visas is 65,000; an additional 20,000 foreigners are admitted if they have a master’s degree or higher from a U.S. institution.

The visa-application window for the 2014 fiscal year will open April 1. This year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services expects to hit the cap in the first five days.

Smith said Microsoft has 3,000 vacancies for engineering jobs in the United States. The company expects to need visa workers to fill a third of the openings, with the vast majority of them recruited directly from campuses.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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