Industry Leaders, Educators and Government Collaborate at STEM Symposium

Did you know that over the past 50 years taxpayer investment in technology and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education has directly produced more than half of the nation’s economic growth?

And yet 2.6 million jobs, mainly in fields like healthcare, aerospace, advanced precision manufacturing, scientific laboratory occupations, and computer-related design, are unfilled, according to a May 2010 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

Why? Because all these jobs require knowledge of STEM, and STEM education is floundering in the United States today.

In an effort to combat this problem, Massachusetts superintendents of K-12 public schools participated last week in the Partnership for Advancing Global Education (PAGE) Symposium. The symposium was formed to create partnerships in education to support student success in the 21st century global workforce, bringing together superintendents and leaders from higher education, government and industry.

Linda Noonan, executive director at Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education welcomed the opportunities provided by the symposium: “Many businesses sponsor after-school programs that give students some exposure to STEM fields, but few provide opportunities for educators and district leaders to learn about the knowledge and skills that students need to succeed in post-secondary education and careers.”

The symposium was a mixture of presentations and break-out discussion dedicated to sharing best practices in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. And according to Karen Le Duc, assistant superintendent of Natick public schools, it was a unique opportunity that “finally brought all players to the table”.

The symposium focused on how business, government and higher education can work together with schools to better equip young people for the challenges of today’s global marketplace.

Dr. Zhenya Zastakver, a professor from Olin College of Engineering, emphasized the importance of higher education working with schools to co-create innovative programs. She discussed her recent collaboration with Newburyport High School in which Olin College students mentored high school children in designing a chair that harnessed energy from swiveling on its axis.

Superintendents stressed the importance of business involvement in order to raise the bar of school achievement.

And Ryan Daily, a teacher from Hudson High School, who worked with PTC to learn about real industry environments, echoed this sentiment:

“My experience with this program provided me the opportunity to see and learn how the engineering software that I am teaching is being used in industry by thousands of companies,” Daily said.

“I had the opportunity to work with the people at PTC who are focused on the educational uses of their software and learn how it could be made even more of an asset in the classroom. I was able to go back to my classroom and speak directly about how major corporations are using the same tools my students are,” Daily said.

Leaders from government, industry, and higher education expressed their enthusiasm in connecting with superintendents at the symposium. Keith Connors from the Massachusetts’ Governor’s STEM Network said, “the input I received on the challenges superintendents face and what we can do, on the state level to help bring STEM to the forefront of their agenda was invaluable.”

A big highlight of the day was Jeff Hoffman’s keynote speech. Hoffman, a five-time NASA astronaut and MIT aerospace professor, shared his passion for space science and a vision for a burgeoning space industry funded by private sector investments. His message: initiatives like the X Prize Foundation are a new hope for young minds who strive to become space scientists and explorers.

Working towards improving the reputation of STEM careers is a critical element in attracting new blood to these fields. “Only 33 percent of high school students in the U.S. are interested in STEM careers, and in Massachusetts it is 28.6 percent,” said Jean Supel from the UMass Donahue Institute.

“Most kids don’t understand the opportunities in STEM. They hear doctor or engineer and they check out. They don’t know what opportunities are available in these careers,” said Cynthia Orellana, from the Department of Higher Education.

To improve student interest in STEM, symposium participants said educators need to teach students about what it’s like to be an engineer or chemist. Videos like “The WOWsters” which showcase STEM professionals—like an inventor who made a flying car or programmer who makes video games—are easily digestible and tangible to young students.

Further reading on collaboration in STEM education:

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