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I recently returned from the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in New York, the world's largest gathering of volunteer leaders from the nonprofit, corporate, and government sectors, where we explored how to leverage service and volunteerism to address critical issues—from economic recovery to education. Education, especially, provides a fertile field for service. As U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told us, "Now—more than ever—service must be a cross-sector strategy for advancing the national education agenda."

He's right, because education today is not a pathway to success but a prerequisite for success. The economic downturn has underscored the urgent need to engage the next generation of critical thinkers to help solve our most pressing problems—challenges that range from clean water and sanitation to clean technology and cancer control. Our economic competitiveness, national security, and social health and wellness also depend on it.

Already, we have made valuable progress in the past year with the launch of such pioneering initiatives as Educate to Innovate campaign; creation of the White House Council on Women and Girls; the Let's Read. Let's Move campaign; and the Race to the Top Fund.

However, much work remains. In our schools, graduation rates remain subpar, math scores continue to decline, and U.S. student achievement still ranks as mediocre among that of other countries. The weak economy, however, simply worsens schools' financial conditions, with severe budget cuts now threatening the quality of education. To make progress, we need to be creative and engage in nontraditional ways to solve challenges.

Companies must be incubators, connectors and innovators

This brings us to what corporate America can do. The private sector must help bridge the gap within our education system between what the government and nonprofits do to advance the national education agenda. We must help unite disparate groups, make connections, and create networks that will collaborate and develop fresh ways to solve problems. We need to leverage the talent and expertise of our employees to mentor, teach, and help create environments where children can learn. We all must be teachers.

The Motorola Foundation is working on this with our signature Innovation Generation Grants program. Now in its fourth year, the program gives more than 100 nonprofits more than $7.5 million to encourage American students' engagement in of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. In addition to financial support, each grantee is paired with a Motorola employee who provides mentoring and advice throughout the program. The combined power of financial and technical expertise is a proven method of success.

Building and sustaining connections through networks

The value of programs such as Innovation Generation is its ability to connect unlikely allies to spur innovative thinking, communication, and connections. Our annual Innovation Generation Network conference, for example, convenes the full network of grantees and provides a forum to share best practices, leverage resources, and cultivate an informed front line of advocates. For smaller recipient organizations that have a global vision but sometimes lack resources, this forum provides an unparalleled opportunity to access a national system of peers eager to advance ideas and programs.

Already, partnerships created within the network have sparked new programming. For example, two grant recipients—Northwestern University's Early Elementary Science Partnership (E2SP) and Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History—work together to link Chicago Public Schools' staff with resources and training to address teacher weaknesses in early science education. This type of collaboration illuminates exactly the type of outcome we seek to create.

For us, the journey has just begun. But for our future's sake, it's an essential journey. This must be a collaborative effort. We must leverage service to help solve problems, we must tap into networks and we must not be afraid to innovate. If we do this and well, we can change the national dialogue, fill gaps in our education system, and create a more sustainable future.

Eileen Sweeney is director of the Motorola Foundation.