WashingtonExec interviewed US STEM Foundation President, Doug Donegan, about the organization’s mission and how companies and employees alike can support STEM initiatives. Doug talks about the importance of creating opportunities for students to participate in hands-on experiential learning activities that challenge their intellect and enhance their ability to creatively collaborate.
WashintonExec: What motivated the creation of the US STEM Foundation?
Doug Donegan: Four years ago a group of parents, teachers and business leaders who sought to give students more opportunities to participate in hands-on technology-based activities formed the US STEM Foundation in Haymarket, Virginia. Battlefield High School had a growing robotics program there that was drawing students to STEM activities at an impressive rate. Not only did the students respond well to the robotics activities and the inherent technical lessons, they were learning some significant life lessons about collaboration and responsibility. What started as a club became and team and evolved into a culture of excellence fueled by the students’ enthusiasm for the activities and challenges. At the time I was a corporate sponsor and from the sidelines found the whole experience to be motivating and inspiring. Personally, I was jealous of the opportunities that these students had, but at the same time I was thrilled by their level of engagement and the way the students grew personally and academically.
It was clear that these robotics activities were changing the trajectory of the students. However, we could also see that the enthusiasm and attraction was going to quickly outpace the resources. We also recognized that this was not a unique experience, other communities were going to be experiencing the same predicament and were going to need help. Extracurricular STEM programs are resource intensive. They require investment in special material sets, tools and infrastructure. Just as important are the personal investments needed; these programs require mentors and advisors to assist the students and foster their development. When it comes to larger group activities, volunteers are needed to coordinate events and make sure they run smoothly and safely. None of these activities or events could happen without donors whose generosity helps subsidize the costs of facilities, infrastructure and materials.
The US STEM Foundation was formed to address these needs. Fundamentally, we understood that STEM activities needed a hybrid support structure that combines the best elements of the sports league and band booster models. Much like a football or soccer team, extracurricular STEM activities requires coaches with knowledge of the activity, special equipment, and space to practice and play games. And like a band booster club, STEM activities need to come together to raise money for instruments, practice sessions and travel. Bringing together these models, the US STEM Foundation has defined its mission to coordinate and subsidize activities that inspire the next generation of STEM professionals leveraging programs hands-on activities, services and strategies that will engage, educate, develop and create responsible citizens.
WashingtonExec: STEM topics in general are getting significant attention in education and business. What is driving the focus being placed upon STEM education?
Doug Donegan: The focus on STEM is both economic and strategic. Several studies and articles have been published about the upcoming deficit of STEM professionals in the workforce. The work that brought STEM to the forefront is a report entitled Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which was authored in 2007 by a joint committee from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. The joint committee was convened to discuss how America could continue to prosper in the global economy of the 21st century. The report the committee produced became an agenda for the American Science and Technology Committee on Engineering and Public Policy. The authors of the report penned detailed responses to several questions related to the state of science and technology education and detailed the steps necessary for “Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.” It makes several recommendations on the actions America should take to remain prosperous in the 21st century in terms of K-12 education, science and engineering research, higher education and economic policy. The study concludes with a call to action by theorizing about “what life might be like, if America became noncompetitive in Science and Technology”. Alternatively, one of my favorite books on this subject is The U.S. Technology Skills Gap – What Every Technology Executive Must Know to Save America’s Future by Gary J. Beach. Beach goes beyond defining the issue and outlining the challenges that need to be overcome, he devotes a significant portion of his book to the work that companies and other organizations are doing to address the “skills gap”, which is both insightful and inspiring.
Fundamentally, there are several drivers to this issue, but I want to specifically dismiss the notion that as a nation our young people lack interest or potential to succeed in STEM professions. Our students are demonstrating interest in STEM curriculum and our universities are not lacking for students pursuing technical degrees. However, that is not to say that the supply is keeping up with the demand. The two largest factors in this demand are the retirement of baby boomer engineers and the increasing technical requirements of newly created jobs. The baby boomers are exiting the workforce at a rate higher than we can backfill the technical ranks. This has significant impact as the more senior engineers retire there will be less technical leaders to train the new generation. At the other end of the spectrum, the number of careers that demand technical proficiency is significantly increasing as technology evolves and consumers demand more from products and services. The United States won’t address this deficiency with quantity, but with dedicated focus from education professionals and strategic investment from industry we will make best attempts to address it with quality. The more we can develop our future STEM workforce, the better our chances are at retaining our relevancy as world leaders in technology and innovation.
The good news is that forward-looking corporations understand this need and are making strategic investments to subsidize the development of their future workforce. They recognize that an investment today will yield tremendous benefit when their future work force arrives with more capability. Smart companies know you just can’t flip a switch and ask a group of young people to collaborate and be innovative; in addition to being introduced to tech