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Interview with US STEM

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 technical concepts there are several personal skills that need to be developed through experience. So much emphasis in our culture is put upon individual performance and competitive performance. As professionals we value strong performers, but we place even more value on contributors who deliver and collaborate to make the team stronger and more productive. The activities the US STEM Foundation supports are very similar to projects we take on as professionals, they are sufficiently broad and complex such that one strong contributor can’t make the difference. The challenges must be tackled as a team and draw upon the strengths and inputs from several students with a diverse skill set. The US STEM Foundation likes to advertise that we are helping train your corporation’s future talent pool; improving their technical acumen and enhancing their ability to creatively collaborate and innovate.

WashintonExec: Is this an educational concept here to stay or will it be overtaken when a new theory is introduced?

Doug Donegan: I’m not an education professional, so I can’t speak to what models are being developed by academics that study and develop these models. However, as an engineer I assert that STEM is an excellent way to address the educational needs of this generation. I opine that the focus on STEM is appropriate and based on sound education theory. Given the need to deliver a quality STEM workforce to the market, I don’t think we can afford to divert our focus on STEM, but we should always try to improve upon it and extend it.

In the 1990s the National Science Foundation married Science, Technology, Engineering and Math with the acronym STEM. Judith A. Ramaley, the former director of the National Science Foundation’s Education and Human Resources division, is credited with coining the term. The traditional Science and Mathematics subjects that we grow up with are recognized as the bookends and enablers for the applied subjects of Technology and Engineering. After years of research educators understand that these subjects cannot and should not be taught in isolation. Curriculum is being adjusted in attempts to integrate the subjects and implement this approach. As professionals we know that they do not exist in isolation in the workforce. The US STEM Foundation recognizes that many STEM activities don’t always fit well into the confines of classroom time. We seek to assist in implementing this concept by supporting extracurricular hands-on activities that allow students to explore and apply these subjects.

WashintonExec: What sort of programs does the US STEM Foundation have?

Doug Donegan: To be clear, presently the US STEM Foundation does not have any of our own proprietary programs. However, we sponsor, subsidize and supplement participation in several well-established STEM activities that have been developed by other organizations. We support the largest and most successful STEM activity in the United States, the US FIRST program. Started by Dean Kamen and Woodie Flower US FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”, seeks to inspire students to pursue engineering and technology pursuits via a series of robotics challenges. These robotics challenges give exposure to STEM concepts to a broad range of students from elementary to high school. At the youngest levels there are activities that employ the Lego Mindstorm® robotics kit. At the most senior levels there is a complex challenge that engages students to build robots that engage in a timed, strategic game where teams cooperate and compete simultaneously. Personally, I think that the FIRST challenges are some of the most ingenious activities ever devised. For the last three years the US STEM Foundation has sponsored an offseason robotics competition based on the FIRST robotics challenge. This year’s completion saw over 400 students from 23 schools across four states and the District of Columbia participating. Similarly, the US STEM Foundation coordinated volunteers and organizers for two official FIRST competitions aimed at elementary, middle and early high school students. We count our reach in the thousands this year and are pleased to be able to support these efforts.

The US STEM Foundation also sponsors several teams that compete in these competitions. WashingtionExec Magazine One of the teams we sponsor, the iLite Robotics Team from Battlefield High School (Team 1885), won the prestigious Chairman’s Award at last month’s DC Regional Competition and as will get the opportunity to compete again at the National Championships in St Louis. This is analogous to the University of Maryland winning the ACC Conference Championship and getting a high seed in NCAA Basketball Tournament. I want to underscore what a tremendous achievement this is. I’m not sure any of the local news outlets picked up the story, but this is to be celebrated with the same level of enthusiasm as we give our sports teams. When it does, I’ll know we are making significant progress in succeeding our mission.

The US STEM Foundation also supports SeaPerch, an underwater robotics program sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). This competition features remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) completing complex missions underwater. We sponsor teams by helping them procure parts kits and provide training for mentors and students. This summer we will be subsidizing a summer camp where students will have the opportunity to learn how to assemble and operate their own SeaPerch ROVs. Again, this is a program that introduces students to STEM concepts and gives them hands-on experience in tackling complex problems with the twist of introducing an undersea dynamic. The SeaPerch program is extremely affordable. We like this activity because it has a low cost barrier to entry for organizations; schools, clubs, Boy and Girl Scout troops can easily participate.

We also sponsored several teams who participated in Cyber Patriot, a national high school cyber defense competition created by the Air Force Association and presented by the Northrop Grumman Foundation. This is an excellent example of two organizations addressing a current and persistent threat by strategically investing in our youth. We applaud these organizations for devising and deploying the Cyber Patriot challenge. In my opinion it is the most immediately applicable STEM activity. Cyber security is extremely complex and will only become more complicated as a function of time. By introducing students to these concepts early and preparing them with hands-on, real-world practice, the Air Force Association and the Northrop Grumman Foundation are ensuring all of us in industry will benefit.

All of these programs are resource intensive in terms of cost and volunteer support. The US STEM Foundation not only helps offset the cost of these activities by subsidizing team expenses, but we also help recruit and coordinate the vast army of volunteers and mentors required to undertake these activities. Just as it takes dedicated adults to run Little League Baseball or a 4-H Camp, we aim to support the funding of these STEM activities.

WashintonExec: How have students responded to the US STEM Foundation’s initiatives?

Doug Donegan: At the risk of sounding undisciplined in our strategy, we are responding to the initiative that the students show interest. Of course, there is a preference for the sort of activities that I’ve already mentioned, but we recognize that good ideas and opportunities are not limited to the things we have supported in the past. With that said, the students that we work with at the high school level are very excited by FIRST Robotics. There is a great culture there and the spirit of Gracious Professionalism® that US FIRST inculcates is something that genuinely seems to resonate with this generation. US STEM is especially interested is supporting programs that are focused at the elementary school level, where modest investments can yield significant long term rewards. We are already seeing the benefit of this as elementary school students who participated in programs we sponsored 4 years ago are entering high school and, as freshmen, are making significant contributions. Some of these high school students have become mentors for new elementary school level teams. So it is becoming a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy – spark an interest in STEM and the fire spreads nicely.

We’re also especially pleased to see how many of our alumni continue to support the activities as mentors and volunteers. This is the most flattering response and the purest form of return on investment that we’ve seen so far, young professionals with college degrees in engineering and science returning to help at a tactical level. It validates and benefits our mission as the students can plainly see future versions of themselves as independent, intelligent, employed professionals. You can tell it is already working, I think we have the proper trajectory and are gaining momentum every year. With the continued support of our volunteers and mentors and the generosity of our donors, we aim to help our youth achieve great things.

In terms of new initiatives, we are making preparations to take some initial, bold steps in creating a center where organizations can undertake STEM pursuits. We understand that one of the largest obstacles some groups face in participating in STEM activities is a space to work after school hours. One of the best forms of support we can give is to provide a dedicated and safe place for groups to meet, learn and innovate. The task of securing and preparing space for these activities is well suited for our organization. We’d prefer to allow to the mentors and volunteers to keep their focus on assisting and instructing the students. This STEM center will also be the base of operations for an Explorers Post, a co-ed Boy Scouts of America Learning for Life® initiative, chartered by the US STEM Foundation. By design this will be a student run Explorer Post, which will allow students to investigate STEM topics using their own initiative with the support of an adult advisory team. We expect this offering to be received favorably and validate our belief that STEM activities are only just beginning to become mainstream and with sufficient infrastructure will grow even stronger.

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