HONOLULU - Hawaii Gov. David Ige announced on Friday a statewide initiative involving education, industry and nonprofit sectors to strengthen the state's innovation economy and workforce, and expand education and employment opportunities for state residents.

Funded with grants totaling $6.8 million from nonprofit USA Funds, the project aims to enhance and diversify Hawaii's economy, prepare residents for high-paying jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, strengthen teaching and learning of STEM subjects, and address Hawaii's "brain drain" of talent to the mainland.

"This initiative will help prepare our students for careers in fast-growing segments of our state's economy and expand high-quality employment opportunities for our residents," Gov. Ige said. "I deeply appreciate the private sector's investment in Hawai‘i's students, teachers and the University of Hawai'i. The investment will further build the state's innovation economy and workforce."

USA Funds, which has worked with state government and higher education institutions in Hawai‘i since 1979, awarded the funds in keeping with its focus on promoting student success in college and career.

"This transformative initiative will help ensure Hawai‘i is able to create and attract the jobs of the future and fill these jobs with in-state talent," said William D. Hansen, USA Funds president and CEO. "Consistent with USA Funds' focus on college Completion With a Purpose, this partnership will link student success in education to rewarding and fulfilling careers following graduation, while enhancing the state’s overall economic vitality."

With nearly $2.2 million in funding from USA Funds, Project Lead The Way, a nonprofit that provides transformative learning experiences for K-12 students and teachers across all 50 states, will help at least 48 Hawaii high schools implement programs in computer science, engineering or biomedical science. The initial group of high schools, which are being selected to participate in the project through a competitive process, will be announced later this month.

"Project Lead The Way currently partners with 30 schools in six complex areas in Hawai'i to deliver transformative learning experiences for students and teachers," said Dr. Vince Bertram, PLTW president and chief executive officer. "Today, Project Lead The Way is honored to expand our partnership with schools in Hawai'i to empower more students with the knowledge and skills that will help them thrive in our evolving world."

As part of the initiative, Project Lead The Way also will provide professional development support to teachers and work with local partners to ensure the materials and programs are culturally relevant.

An initial two-year grant of $4.6 million from USA Funds to the University of Hawaii will support a multi-faceted economic and workforce development initiative, including the following components:

  • Promoting government, industry and education collaboration to determine current and future STEM workforce needs.
  • Creating a continuous academic pathway in STEM fields through college.
  • Supporting economic development and high-quality job creation through just-in-time workforce development.
  • Improving information available to help students select the best path through education to STEM careers and help policymakers and educators better assess the outcomes of education and training programs.

In addition, the University of Hawaii will establish a STEM Center of Excellence, which will coordinate STEM-related activities across the state.

"Hawai'i's centralized K-12 and higher education systems, which already work together closely, provide us with a unique opportunity to model for the nation how to use complex data and collaborate with business and government to understand and meet current and emerging workforce needs for an entire state," said University of Hawaii President David Lassner. "This initiative will prepare our students so that they have the skills and expertise our state needs in high-wage and high-demand STEM fields. We are most grateful to USA Funds for its innovative vision and very generous investment in Hawai'i's students and our workforce."

The program advances the Hawai‘i Innovation Initiative, a public-private partnership to build a thriving innovation economy in the state and create living-wage jobs, and the Hawai'i Graduation Initiative, which aims to increase higher education opportunities and college completion, especially among Native Hawaiians and students from low-income households.

By 2017, Hawaii is projected to need 16,000 more workers with STEM skills each year, but the state currently ranks 47th among the states in the number of STEM-related degrees awarded per 100,000 residents.