Tribune Intern Reporter
Kansas City is known for barbecue, sports and jazz, but KC Tech Council President Ryan Weber says metro residents should also be bragging about their status as a technology hub.
The technology industry is responsible for 93,880 jobs in the Kansas City metro area and has an impact of 9.5 percent according to the KC Tech Council 2017 Inaugural State-of-the-Industry Report.
It is the fastest growing industry behind healthcare.
“Technology is a key component to most business sectors,” Weber said. “Nationally, only 37 percent of tech jobs are at tech companies.”
Lee’s Summit contributes to the growing hub in a number of ways as well as the Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) industry as a whole.
On the most basic level, Lee’s Summit is an avid consumer of technology and its advancements. The majority of Lee’s Summit households display technology-efficient socioeconomic qualities.
For example, many residents, both old and young, are said to be tech savvy with devices and their features, shop online, use it regularly for convenience, absorb a large amount of daily information from the internet, and are up to date with the latest technology.
This is according to the Lee’s Summit Tapestry Segmentation Area Profile provided by Jessica Hamilton, MPA, Director of Community and Investor Relations of the Lee’s Summit Economic Development Council.
Later this year, a Labor Shed Study should be able detail more about the actual employment of Lee’s Summit residents in the STEM field.
Jobs and tech-efficiency aside, Lee’s Summit offers many impressive educational outlets that prepare students to be a part of the KC tech hub.
“Lee’s Summit is already home to a number of tech employers and is the home of Summit Technology Academy (STA) – one of the leading K12 education centers for technology education,” Weber said. “This education asset is very important, because in the near future we believe tech companies will only exist in cities that can produce their own tech talent.”
STA offers a variety of different STEM pathways including: engineering, computer science, health science, and creative science. They also have a digital media technology program.
“Summit Technology Academy allows students to gain valuable and advanced career preparation competencies related to STEM that provide a competitive edge in college and their future careers,” said Assistant Director of STA Dr. Jeremy Bonnesen. “Focused students are able to pursue their passion in high-demand, high-wage professional studies career pathways in the context of working with experts in that career field.”
STA partners with neighboring colleges to help students graduate sooner with a degree and less debt, according to Bonnesen. At the same time, students are exposed to a professional network and are able to land high-wage and high-demanded careers in the Kansas City area.
Earlier this year, STA was recognized among 11 programs for an “Excellence in Action” award by Advance CTE (Career Technical Education). They named STA as a top Network Engineering program in the country.
Additionally, Lee’s Summit is home to a number of FIRST programs. This is an extracurricular organization that students K-12 can join.
The mission of FIRST is “to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”
Paul Sites is a 2010 graduate of Lee’s Summit High School. He was also a part of their FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team, Team Driven 1730, all four years of high school. There, he enjoyed learning about engineering, how things worked, and robotics in general.
Now, Sites is a software engineer at Cerner Corporation.
“FRC connected me with incredible teachers and real-world engineering mentors,” Sites said. “Over the years of working alongside them I was able to get a better understanding of all the different types and figure out where I wanted to focus.”
Robotics requires organized efforts of engineering, programming, building, and funding. How involved, exactly, are students in the robotics process?
“Think about a car and everything that goes into a car today,” Sites said. “There are thousands of pieces that somehow all fit together, much like a giant puzzle. In FRC, high school students are asked to be the engineers, the machinists, the project managers, the accountants, the programmers, and in just six weeks create a machine that can complete tasks far more complex than driving down a road.”
Students are expected to program the robots to complete tasks like shooting Frisbees, kicking soccer balls, arranging and stacking storage totes, throwing 40 inch balls 7 feet in the air, climbing jungle gyms, and much more.
However, there are many other roles taken on.
“Lee's Summit FRC teams operate like small engineering firms,” Sites said. “They just happen to be non-profits and run by high school students working side by side full time engineers. We have the engineering department, but also accounting, media, web, and management. We do not have consistent funding given to us. Our fundraising team works hard to find ways for us to raise over $50,000 per year!”
After graduating from LSHS, Team Driven 1730 had an impact on Sites’ career track and preparation. During his time with FRC, he developed the soft skills of communication, leadership, teamwork, and time management. He was also exposed to public speaking on a large scale.
“It's skills such as these that have helped me to create my own opportunities, but I attribute the roots to my time in robotics,” Sites said.
Robotics also helped pave the way to Sites’ current employment.
“I only came to know about Cerner through their sponsorship of the robotics program,” he said. “I was able to get my foot in the door at Cerner where I was hired as an intern after completing my freshman year at Missouri S&T. As an intern, I was able to create the KC Power Source program, a series of programming summer camps targeted to fill the lack of Computer Science education in our K-12 programs at the time. That first internship gave me the confidence to know I was studying what was right for me.”
Sites is now a mentor for Lee’s Summit North’s FRC 1987 Team Broncobots in addition to his day job. He has enjoyed switching roles, easing some of the rivalry between LSHS and LSN, and just being a resource for the students.
“I'm heavily involved in many facets of the program. I'm often one of the first to the shop, and the last to leave. I do as much as I can to help and teach wherever I can. I can be found running and teaching students about the teams CNC router, making awesome videos, programming, or just taking pictures and capturing some of what we do.”
According to Sites, the Broncobots have just wrapped up their most successful season to date. In addition to the many awards and competitions won, they won the State Championship on May 13. This summer they will be putting on summer camps for younger kids and will be partaking in various community events.
With the numerous roles and positions he has held in the technology industry, Sites says that there is no shortage of work to be done and no shortage of jobs to fill.
This sentiment is precisely what KC Tech Council President Ryan Weber is trying to drive home to lawmakers and educators. The future byproducts of legislation would have direct effects on Lee’s Summit students.
According to their report, there are “not enough workers in the area with the technical skills to meet the demand of our region’s companies.”
“We will never meet the needs of the industry if computer science is extracurricular,” Weber said. “Computer science should be required learning in K-12 education. If we can get state lawmakers to update our education policy it will create a huge shift and expose all students to a future in tech.”
Weber said most students choose what they want to be before computer science courses are offered to them in high school. Because of this, they need to be exposed earlier.
“Epic elementary, located in Liberty, is a national example of the value of device-based learning and teaching software development, including algorithms, in elementary school.
“However, I am encouraged by the inclusion of software development in programs like Robotics.”
And Lee’s Summit fosters many of these other programs that continuously engage students in STEM.
Just this year, Summit Lakes Middle School students captured the Cyberpatriot National Championship held April 3-5. Their group, Team Error 37, had to harden simulated computer systems and resolve real-life cybersecurity situations faced by industry professionals.
Summit Tech Teacher Lisa Oyler mentored this year’s team. Last year her high school team of Lee’s Summit also won a national cybersecurity crown at the CyberPatriot National Youth Cyber Defense Competition in Baltimore.
Mason Elementary has also made local headlines for their work with professionals on creating a Science City exhibit. The students were afforded this opportunity after winning Burns & McDonnell’s Battle of the Brains in November 2015.
Over 5,300 students from 210 schools submitted entries to this STEM competition open to schools throughout the Kansas City metropolitan area. Mason students were the grand prize winners.
With technology becoming more and more pertinent to our economy and industries, Weber points out other states already making strides to keep up outside extracurricular programs by modifying elementary education.
“Thirty-four other states have recently adopted policy to shift computer science from an elective to a credit,” he said. “In those examples, students can choose computer science to count as a math, science or foreign language credit.
“However, seven states have gone a step further to make computer science required with its own set standards. We don’t have to look too far for model legislation because one of our neighboring states is the national model – Arkansas.”
Since the numbers gathered in their Tech Spec Report reflect 2015-2016, a big jump is expected to be seen in education. Specifically, the prominence of Project Lead the Way Computer Science courses taught has jumped from 24 schools to 46, according to KC Stem Alliance Executive Director Martha B. McCabe.
McCabe also said that she and Weber will be working on an addendum this summer to account for the numbers the additional programs provide, such as FIRST robotics and the Girls in Tech KC program.
While improvements can be made in our own model, it is clear that Kansas City is still a strong competitor.
In Kansas City, the average STEM income is $84,617. The average income that all other industries make is $49,934 according to JobsEQ employment data provided by Senior Researcher Jeff Pinkerton of the Mid-American Regional Council.
That means STEM workers make about 41 percent more in their annual salary versus non-STEM industries on average.
Additionally, 5-year job growth has been 6.2 percent according to that same data. This is 3.6 times greater than the job growth in all other industries in KC. The pace of STEM job growth is almost double the national average.
With such a booming industry, the main concern now is to ensure all the jobs are filled. Many schools and organizations are working tirelessly to address this issue. Education reform and a continued involvement with programs such as STA and robotics may help Kansas City remain the tech hub of the Midwest.