Superman and STEM

Waiting for Superman

With the buzz surrounding Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for Superman film and the recent launch of President Obama's Change the Equation initiative, education once again comes to the forefront of the national agenda. Just one year after the administration unveiled the Educate to Innovate campaign, this new flurry of attention is a great opportunity to gauge the progress our country is making to close the learning gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects and to examine how we can move the education agenda forward.

Last November, through Educate to Innovate, the White House began taking serious steps to promote STEM training. Now we stand at an even more crucial crossroads: two years into the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression, our nation's unemployment still hovers near 10 percent, with minorities and young workers hardest hit. Still, STEM jobs, including those in our telecommunications industry, are rising in number, projected to expand by 1 million this year. The irony is that only 200,000 American graduates have the skills to fill them.

As Bill Gates said before the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology, "Too many of our students fail to graduate from high school with the basic skills they will need to succeed in the 21st-century economy. ... Although our top universities continue to rank among the best in the world, too few American students are pursuing degrees in science and technology."

Government programs and assets in popular culture, like Waiting for Superman, are striving to reverse this trend. Corporations must partner with them, and re-evaluate our own initiatives to determine how we can engage and partner to support key pillars in improving education.

Ensuring students are prepared for colleges and careers

A 2006 federal study concluded that STEM-literate students are almost twice as likely to earn a bachelor's degree, which helps them land jobs in the globally competitive, knowledge-based economy. Aside from investing money in educational programs, the private sector has an unparalleled opportunity to leverage the skills of its employees to truly excite students about careers in science.

For example: each year at Motorola, our engineers volunteer to coach youth in the FIRST Robotics competition, employing their expertise to engage students in science through building robots. Attend a FIRST conference and you will experience firsthand the knock-your-socks-off excitement generated by thousands of students in competition. These conferences demonstrate without qualification the difference we can make.

Empowering effective teachers and getting them into every classroom

Effective teachers represent the front lines in the campaign to bolster STEM education. With their day-to-day interaction with students, great teachers make a world of difference.

In order to get these kinds of teachers into each classroom, the Obama administration committed $250 million to recruit and train STEM teachers last year. As a corporate community, we must complement those efforts.

Microsoft, as another example, invests in its Partners in Learning program, which has worked with more than 2 million school leaders and teachers to push beyond the limits of traditional classrooms and try more engaging and inspiring education models. By helping teachers share best practices and successful methods, lesson plans and practices as a form of professional development, the program is equipping educators with the tools needed to make a positive impact in classrooms.

Measuring tangible results

To ensure we're moving in the right direction and making a tangible difference, we must establish methods to measure our success. Creating clear, consistent, quantifiable and high standards for our students is a crucial gap and challenge we all struggle with--which is why it is also a pillar of the Department of Education's Race to the Top Program. Measurement will provide an unbiased benchmarking tool to determine what's working and what isn't. Private sector members like PricewaterhouseCoopers or specialized firms like Mission Measurement may be in the perfect position to step in and help move us all forward with their area of expertise--quantifying.

Moving forward

As we enter a new decade, we are presented with an opportunity to work with a presidential administration eager to advance STEM and to cultivate a pioneering pipeline of critical thinkers. Business can make the critical difference. As this new academic year progresses, I urge our corporate peers and others to focus collectively on helping all students prepare for a lifetime of success through mastering STEM.

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