BANGOR, Maine — The shortage of experts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is very real in Maine as it is across the United States, a fact which has led to calls for action everywhere from the White House to the Maine governor’s mansion.

This has led to the proliferation of so-called STEM programs in Maine and across the country.

Anita Bernhardt, a science and technology specialist for the Maine Department of Education, said the average age of an engineer in the United States is 47. In Maine, she predicts job openings in technology and engineering careers will increase by nearly 50 percent by 2018 because of retirements in those fields and new jobs created. According to figures from the Department of Labor, which indicate there are some 20,000 STEM-related jobs in Maine, that could mean there will be an additional 10,000 jobs in the future.

“We’ve been hearing about this consistently over the past 10 years,” said Bernhardt. “Our country will have trouble trying to fill jobs in STEM in the near future. That begs the question, ‘What do we do about it?’”

STEM is not a particular program of a specific design, but it has become a bit of a household word among educators. Part of the reason for that has been a building chorus that the United States is falling behind other countries when it comes to students pursuing careers in science, technology and mathematics. According to Bernhardt, the problem is most pronounced in government agencies and and industries that handle defense contracts, many of which she said require U.S. citizenship for employees.

Andrew Anderson, dean and professor of technology for the University of Southern Maine, said a building chorus at every level of education is raising awareness about the need for STEM professionals.

“It’s a subject that is now being talked about at all levels,” said Anderson. “From that standpoint we’re making a good effort to raise awareness. When I look at the opportunities out there for students in STEM, I wonder why they are not knocking down our doors.”

Despite that, Anderson said enrollment in USM’s STEM-related programs is “steadily going up,” but the school is still nowhere near capacity.

STEM-related careers have been identified as major growth sectors in Maine, particularly in heath care and precision manufacturing, according to Adam Fisher, spokesman for the Maine Department of Labor. There are currently about 20,000 Mainers working in STEM-related jobs, which Fisher said pay an average of 60 percent higher than other jobs that require the same level of college training.

“There are a lot of retirements coming,” said Fisher. “That’s an issue across all industries here. Maine has one of the oldest, if not the oldest, work forces in the country.”

Anderson said the shortage of students interested in STEM is exacerbated — especially in New England — by the fact that high school enrollments are decreasing overall and many students are more interested in other career paths.

“There’s some preliminary data out there that shows that by middle school, many students are not interested in STEM as a career,” he said. “They think it’s too hard.”

Though Maine schools are at various stages of implementing STEM programs, initiatives have charged ahead in some geographic areas.

In Portland, a nonprofit group that seeks to create a charter school called the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science inked a real estate deal last month for a headquarters for the school, which intends to enroll its first students next fall. In Bangor, the school department received conceptual approval from the school committee in late November to create an intensive and specialized course of study for students interested in STEM-related fields.

Bangor schools Superintendent Betsy Webb said the initiative in Bangor was triggered by a recognition that the state not only needs to improve its efforts on the education front, it also needs to take steps to interest students in STEM-related careers in the first place.

“The timing is right,” said Webb. “We have listened closely to the state’s call to action from the governor to the commissioner of education to higher education institutions.”

In 2010, President Barack Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy recommended in an extensive report that immediate measures be taken to improve STEM technology. Those measures included recruiting and training 100,000 new STEM teachers and developing incentives for them to succeed, and creating 1,000 new STEM-focused schools over the next 10 years.

According to Bernhardt, Maine is at an advantage when it comes to improving STEM education.

“The fact that Maine is a small state is a real advantage to us,” she said. “In order to make this work you have to reach out and make connections. Maine is a small community, which means we have the potential to really have a common vision to move forward and work together in a coherent way.”

Work to that end already is under way in several locations. Southern Maine Community College recently founded The Reach Center, which is a partnership between the college, the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance and the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone. The goal, which was bolstered recently with a $3.2 million anonymous gift, is to make The Reach Center a resource for schools statewide that are trying to create new STEM programs.

Officials at Bangor High School, which is not as far along as The Reach Center, said they envision a program that focuses in both directions on the educational ladder for success. According to Bangor High School Principal Paul Butler, the district is working with the University of Maine on several fronts, including formation of a program that will allow students to enter college with enough credits to be sophomores. Conversely, high school students involved in the Bangor High School STEM Academy will be tutors and mentors for children in the younger grades with the hope of planting the STEM seed as early as possible.

“This program will be open to all students but it’s going to be a heavy curriculum academically,” said Butler. “For a student to march through this, he or she will be really challenging himself over four years.”

Among the academy’s requirements will be that students take physics — which is usually reserved for the junior or senior year, and often only for highly motivated students — during their freshman year.

At York High School, the STEM program isn’t as clearly delineated as Bangor’s is, according to York Principal Robert Stevens, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t undertaking many of the same initiatives. About 10 years ago, according to Stevens, administrators and staff vowed to make preparing kids for higher education across all vocations a priority. The result is a higher education sending rate that varies between 85 and 93 percent, said Stevens.

Instead of instituting a requirement that all students take four years of science and math, Stevens said teachers simply opted to try simple encouragement. The result has been an increase at York High School from one physics class with 20 students to six full physics classes plus an advanced-placement course. Stevens said about 99 percent of York students take physics before they graduate.

“There’s nothing sexy about what we’re doing; we’re just kind of feeling our way,” said Stevens. “Unfortunately, we really haven’t been able to look at the engineering side of things very much. We just haven’t had the economic resources to bring a program like that forward.”

STEM education is taking hold at the lower levels, as well. At the kindergarten-through-grade-eight Durham Community School, older students have access to various STEM-related classes, including one called STEM, according to Principal Will Pidden.

“All of our seventh- and eighth-graders have that class as part of their years,” said Pidden, who said subjects taught include robotics, computer programming and various other disciplines. The theme, he said, is incorporating hands-on science and math projects as opposed to focusing on classroom lectures.

“Imagine learning about measurement but never measuring anything,” said Pidden. “These are skills that all students need regardless of what career path they’re taking. As colleges look for kids’ expertise and experiences in these skills, high schools will start offering more. We don’t STEM education to stop at the eighth grade.”

Bernhardt, at the Department of Education, said the difference between the York and Bangor programs is illustrative of the many approaches being taken in Maine schools. If there is a common theme, it is that the most successful programs partner with the business community.

“Very many kids in our state know that STEM subjects are important but they think it’s not for them,” she said. “We know that kids who participate in real research are more likely to pursue STEM career pathways.”

According to Butler, Bangor High School has a strong tradition of students doing original research, ranging from one student’s contribution to a hot sauce ranking system a decade ago to a current student’s work on water science. In four of the past five years, a Bangor student has been chosen as Maine’s winner of the U.S. Stockholm Water Prize. In 2011, the winner was 16-year-old graduating senior Leila Musavi, whose project involved finding pathogens such as cholera and E. coli in water. Musavi is now studying medicine at Columbia University.

Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Steven Bowen have repeatedly said that one of the keys to educational success is grabbing the interest of students when they’re young. Bowen is in the midst of developing an educational strategy document for the state and has said that individualized learning will be at its center.

Bernhardt said she sees that as a positive.

“Resources are slender right now,” she said. “One of the most important things we can do is to help raise awareness.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.