The STEM Core: Moving Silicon Valley’s Existing Students onto Engineering and Computer Science Degree Pathways

By Dave Gruber, Gabe Hanzel-Sello and Caz Pereira

In his October 3rd blog post, John Melville of Collaborative Economics makes the point that Silicon Valley is not producing enough STEM Degree candidates.

One of the great sources for the next generation’s STEM Workforce are our regional community colleges.  The Bay Area has 23 community colleges, 11 in Silicon Valley alone.  State data suggests that 80% of students entering these colleges begin with remedial math and English courses.  Statewide experience suggests few of these students will pursue pathways needed to qualify for the kinds of jobs in engineering and computer science that are available now and in the near-future.  In fact, statewide data shows that of students entering community college at remedial levels, only 1% ever reach calculus proficiency- a foundation prerequisite for engineering and computer science degrees.  In addition to breaking through the calculus barrier, these students are faced with the same challenges of too many Silicon Valley residents; lack of STEM professional role models, lack of knowledge of STEM career and educational opportunities, and lack of the social, financial and academic support needed to complete a rigorous STEM education pathway. This pool of students, many of them the first in their family to go to college, reflects the diversity of California and, because they’re already living in Silicon Valley, represent an ideal solution to the regional need for a homegrown, diverse workforce.  Despite this current opportunity, few current efforts are aimed at encouraging and assisting these specific students to connect with the vast range of STEM job opportunities.

One exciting new initiative to realize the potential of this next generation local STEM workforce is the Silicon Valley Engineering Technology Pathways (SVETP); a $13 million initiative led by San Jose Evergreen Community College District and funded by the State of California Department of Education’s Career Pathways Trust.   SVETP supports a new strategy, “The STEM Core”, designed specifically to address the challenges of assisting remedial-level community colleges to pursue B.S. degree pathways in engineering, computer science, and related STEM fields.  In place of individual students pursuing remedial coursework, the STEM Core, now being implemented at 9 local community colleges, creates a cohort-based learning community of students with a common goal of achieving calculus readiness, workplace competency, and paid industry internships within one year. The STEM Core model differs from traditional community college education in the following critical ways; 1) Students are placed into a block-scheduled, cohort-based learning community, 2) In place of isolated, remedial math courses, students pursue an accelerated math sequence compressing 3-4 traditional math courses into one year. To engage students, coursework is contextualized to real-world engineering and computer science applications, 3)  Students gain access to engineering and computer science classes usually closed to them as well as industry speakers and field trips, 4) Students are assisted by a dedicated Student Support Specialist who helps them in adjusting to the rigors of community college education including development of study skills, career orientation, and dealing with the issues of transportation, family life, and health that so often derail community college students, and 5) In addition to the academic curriculum students have the opportunity for hands-on, paid summer internships at partner employer sites.

In pilot programs conducted at four colleges around California over the last four years, this approach has shown strong early promise in directing students on a STEM pathway.  65% of remedial students entering the program reached Calculus within one year (compared to 4% statewide over three years).  In addition, students have been successfully placed at over 200 internship opportunities provided by employers such as NASA Ames, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Type A Machines.  A surprising number of students were able to convert their initial grant-funded internship into a company-sponsored part time job.   Most importantly, the STEM Core experience is leading a new pool of students to pursue the STEM degrees that are vital to their future and that of the larger Silicon Valley economy.


Dave Gruber, Gabe Hanzel-Sell and Caz Pereira are with Growth Sector.


Filling Our Talent Pool: Strong Record, But Missed Opportunity?

Silicon Valley has an enviable track record of filling (and sometimes refilling) our pool of tech workers year after year.  This is important because Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) talent is a key competitive asset in innovation regions as STEM skills are critical in researching, developing, improving, and scaling innovative technologies, business and processes.  Today, our region has a large absolute number of STEM workers compared to other innovation regions.

Silicon Valley also has a much higher concentration of STEM talent than many other innovation regions—that is, the proportion of STEM workers in the overall workforce relative to the national average.  Absolute numbers are important, but high concentration is too—indicating a strong specialization in STEM talent-driven industries in the regional economy.  Some regions have large absolute numbers but low concentrations (e.g., Southern California, New York City region), while others have higher concentrations but lower absolute numbers (e.g., Seattle, Boston, Austin).  Silicon Valley actually ranks among the highest on both measures.

Not surprisingly, the Valley is almost three times more concentrated in STEM workers than the nation as a whole.  But, it is also almost 50% more concentrated than the Boston region, and close to 40% more than Seattle and Austin.  While Southern California and the New York City region both have larger absolute numbers of STEM workers, they have a much smaller concentration of such workers given their overall labor forces.

talentpool_svcip2016As important, Silicon Valley has grown its STEM advantage over the past decade.  Between 2005 and 2015, the region’s concentration of STEM talent grew 22%.  Of the comparison regions, only Seattle’s concentration increased at a faster rate.   Austin’s pool grew at half the rate of the Valley.  And, strikingly, Boston, Southern California, and the New York City region all lost ground, as their concentration of STEM workers actually declined.

Overall, a good news story, right?  Yes, Silicon Valley has a strong record of expanding its technical talent base.  So, what is the missed opportunity?

stem_svcip2016If we look at the local production of STEM degrees—preparing local residents for Silicon Valley STEM jobs—we find a different story.  Instead of leading the pack, the region ranks behind Boston and Austin, and just ahead of Southern California, Seattle, and the New York City region in the number of STEM degrees conferred per capita.  And, STEM degree production per capita in Southern California and the New York City region grew much faster than that of Silicon Valley between 2014 and 2015.  Boston’s STEM degrees conferred per capita also grew twice as fast as our region.

growthstem-svcipWhy is this important?  We are clearly able to fill our STEM talent pool better than most.  It is important because we have the opportunity to prepare local residents to join our technical talent pool and enjoy the benefits of our regional prosperity.  But, the ticket to play is a STEM degree.  While STEM degree production in Silicon Valley is growing, it is not growing as fast as many innovation regions.  We will need to do better if we are to capitalize on this “local sourcing” opportunity.

Let us know what you think—including your suggestions for how our region can help local residents attain STEM degrees and join our technical talent pool.


John Melville is Co-CEO of Collaborative Economics