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Campus ready for country's future

Gary Keefer

Our nation is currently experiencing a shortage of graduates in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) disciplines, yet a significant portion of future job growth is projected to be in these areas. High schools students who pursue STEM degrees will have excellent job prospects upon graduation. As a civil/environmental engineer, I am passionate about the role that Penn State Beaver can play in preparing the STEM workforce of tomorrow.

I have met and spoken with many STEM business leaders who have shared their difficulty in filling positions with qualified graduates. Locally, this shortage is likely to become even more pronounced as Beaver County is poised for significant growth in the energy and manufacturing sectors in the next decade.

Royal Dutch Shell has announced that they have identified a local site for a new multi-billion-dollar “cracker plant.” This facility will use the abundant shale gas from our area and convert it to ethylene, the raw material used in the production of plastics, antifreeze, tires, and other related products.

he Beaver County site was selected because of the local availability of natural gas and its easy access to the river, interstate system, railways, and Pittsburgh International Airport. This plant will likely attract many new “downstream” businesses that will utilize the ethylene.

Governor Tom Corbett and the Allegheny Conference on Economic Development have called this project the single largest manufacturing initiative in Southwestern Pennsylvania in a generation. When completed, the facility will employ between 400 and 800 people, but at the peak of construction, approximately 10,000 workers will be needed.

While Shell had not made a final decision about the project as this magazine went to press, we know that the Beaver County site is the only one being considered. Shell has already spent millions of dollars in analysis and preparation. It appears that the cracker plant is very likely to move forward, but even if it does not occur, there are many other energy-related businesses planning to come to our area.

Penn State has a national reputation for producing well-educated, highly qualified graduates in business, engineering, science, and information technology, all of which will be needed to form the core of the professional staff at the new facility. Our campus will play a significant role in preparing area students for these local positions. In fact, engineering is the most popular declared major among incoming freshmen at Penn State Beaver. However, engineering students are faced with extremely challenging courses, and there is an attrition rate of more than 50 percent within the first two years of study. So I am pleased to tell you that our campus has taken the lead in discussing and promoting a strong partnership with our Beaver County schools in order to strengthen STEM education.

In mid-February, we partnered with the Beaver Valley Intermediate Unit to host a kick-off meeting attended by some of our best STEM high school teachers as well as Beaver campus STEM faculty. Through a facilitated, in-depth focus group discussion, the participants identified challenges that school districts face in preparing students adequately for success in college or moving into the workforce directly after graduation.

More importantly, the group is exploring the question of why more talented high school and college students are not pursuing STEM careers and how to change that.

Our professors and the high school teachers were in almost complete agreement on all of the topics and questions that were raised. While I believe that more questions than answers were identified during this initial session, I was impressed by the participants’ passion about the subject. I was also excited about the possibilities that we have to create a more seamless education process for students in our communities.

Beaver County is poised to be the center of a vital and resurgent economy in southwestern Pennsylvania, and I believe our campus is a key player as we move forward with other community leaders and businesses.

The future holds a tremendous amount of potential growth for Penn State Beaver, and I assure you that our faculty and staff eagerly await the chance to meet the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.