Education Round Table November 2012

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 Not the answer but the solution

STEM education builds a new breed of worker that will help North Carolina businesses meet their future challenges.

Companies are looking for versatile workers. They need people who are not necessarily trained to fill a specific role but can adapt and find solutions to challenges. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics — STEM — education builds those skills, among others, in students through hands-on projects and real-life scenarios. It will play an important role in making sure the country and North Carolina remain economic and technological leaders in the global marketplace. A panel of industry and education leaders recently gathered to discuss the state of STEM education. Participating were Sam Houston, president and CEO of North Carolina Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Center in Research Triangle Park; Karl Rectanus, director of partnerships for VIF International Education in Chapel Hill; John Hardin, executive director of the Office of Science and Technology at the N.C. Department of Commerce; Robert H. Matheson III, principal of Wake N.C. State University STEM Early College High School in Raleigh; Matthew Meyer, associate vice president of STEM Innovations for the N.C. Community College System; Martha Barnwell, general manager of workforce planning and development for Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corp.; and Lisa Zannoni, head of global biotechnology regulatory affairs and stewardship for Switzerland-based Syngenta International AG, which sponsored and hosted the discussion at its Research Triangle Park office. It was co-sponsored by the N.C. Community College System and Duke Energy. Business North Carolina Publisher Ben Kinney moderated the discussion. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Why is STEM education important to North Carolina businesses? 

Rectanus: STEM jobs are growing three times faster than jobs in other sectors. By some calculations, we have 1.5 STEM jobs for every unemployed person in North Carolina. Look at Kannapolis, where you’ve got a great research institution. About 5,000 manufacturing jobs left there, and now about 5,000 new jobs are expected, but they demand different skills. We see that happening across the state. It’s not about just doctors and researchers — it’s farmers, the manufacturing floor, you name it. STEM skills are the skills that every job requires. We have to bring those jobs here, no matter where they come from. And to continue to get investments here in the state, we’re going to have to focus on STEM. The important thing for businesses to understand is these employees are the hardest to find, the hardest to keep and the most critical for growth.

Hardin: The Department of Commerce’s mission is to promote economic development and quality of life for all North Carolinians. One of the key ways it does that is by recruiting new companies to North Carolina. Our business and industry division lists the priorities of all the companies that they talk to and No. 1 or No. 2 is almost always a skilled workforce. They may not specifically say STEM educated, but they mean STEM, because they want a skilled workforce. And whether it is a high-tech or a low-
tech company, a skilled workforce is still needed. My office deals with a lot of small businesses. We award grants to companies to help them develop and commercialize innovative technologies, and at least half of that money goes to pay labor. Their labor pool is essentially STEM-educated workers, who are above-average skill level, above-average wage level and above-average retention level.

Houston: When we think about STEM, we think about strategies that engage minds, not just science, technology, engineering and math. We know we need people who can communicate well, use numbers and data, use systems and technology. We also need people who can problem solve and process information. I use the quote: “Know what to do when they’re not sure what to do.” STEM provides an opportunity to make sure young people learn to use information and research, to think about problems and have the skill sets necessary to carry out the action. It allows young people to learn how to use information like they are going to use it when they get out of school. We spend a lot of time making sure kids are successful in school. We ought to be thinking about them being successful after they get out of school.

Barnwell: You look at any aspect of Duke Energy and practically every role involves strong math and technology skills. Every company has that critical need. Currently we find deficiencies in those skills in many of the folks who come in the door.

Zannoni: Syngenta is an agricultural company, and even though historically you don’t think about agriculture as technical, our whole future depends on technology to feed the global population. We need a skilled workforce to accommodate our growth. It’s particularly important here in North Carolina because four of the six major agricultural companies have operations here. It’s a growing demand within this state.

How does STEM education prepare future workers? 

Matheson: I think you need to start with the interdisciplinary nature of STEM. For example, students go to their science classroom, and they are studying access to clean water and the earth science related to it. In STEM education, when they go from their science class to their humanities class, they’re still talking about access to clean water. When you talk to universities and the business community, that’s exactly what they’re looking for — people who can cut across disciplines. That’s really where we solve problems. If you ask why do a billion people in the world not have access to clean water, the answer is economic, ethical, legal, political, social and sustainability issues that keep us from taking the science of access to clean water and implementing it. When a student leaves STEM Early College, they are going to have an understanding of the economics of access to clean water, and they are also going to be able to do the engineering and the math associated with it. That’s really the critical mass of what STEM education should be.

 Hardin: I’m the director of the Office of Science and Technology, and I have a Ph.D. Most people would assume that I am a biologist or a chemist. Actually, my Ph.D. is in political science, which to some may come as a surprise because of my job. Political scientists are really social scientists. It’s very interdisciplinary, and if I had to go back and redo my undergraduate training for my graduate school, I would probably major in math or one of the hard sciences because much of graduate school was working with data, and my undergraduate background in business really wasn’t the best preparation for that. What I took away from graduate school is not all the facts and figures I learned but the methodology about how to address a problem. That’s what I think STEM is about. It’s a process. It’s a way of thinking. You might forget the details, but you remember the process.

Rectanus: There will be artists who come out of Wake N.C. State University STEM Early College High School, and there will be social scientists. There will also be engineers and future employees who work in Research Triangle Park. But they will all have a process and a way to think about what to do when they don’t know what to do — that’s really critical.

 Barnwell: The thing we need to also remember is sometimes STEM can be perceived as only those who are going to higher-skilled areas, and it’s not. We need the fundamental skills taught through STEM at all levels. We see that need in every aspect, whether it’s our line technicians who respond to an outage, our nuclear operators or even those who manage our fuels and their procurement.

Meyer: During the recession we always felt we were the economic-development cavalry. We saw a lot of people who were laid off enroll for further training. With STEM we see a way to retool the workforce and make sure that we give students what they need in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I think everything that we do in the community colleges falls within STEM. For three years, we’ve been looking at five heavy STEM sectors: engineering, environmental, building and construction, energy and transportation and logistics. Now we’re looking at what’s critical to STEM, and we really feel math is. It cuts across all of those sectors. We’ve just embarked on a statewide math curriculum-improvement project. We’re going to go back in and try to determine if the math is appropriate for the different programs. Maybe there is a statistics way or a STEM way relative to math that students in a particular curriculum might need.

How can STEM lessons apply to workers and businesses outside core STEM areas?

Rectanus: As an entrepreneur you might not know where you’re going to be hiring in two years or what the technology is that you’ll be using. But we do know that if we have people who can solve problems, which STEM teaches,
we will be able to evolve, grow and move quicker than the competition, regardless of the industry.

Zannoni: STEM doesn’t have to be the endpoint. A technical degree is a great basis for other degrees. I completed a pharmacy degree and then a law degree. My edge has been my science background because of the way I can analyze things. The inductive versus deductive reasoning plays into that. I think it’s a good basis for future growth no matter what you want to do. 

Meyer: One of the things that we’ve looked at in community colleges is content of courses — how to bring workplace skills into it, such as how to think, how to problem solve and show up to work on time. People don’t think about those as being part of STEM, but I’m hearing that they are. Those are things that I hope will help our kids get into careers that pay well. STEM is about building education pathways that will lead to other things. For example, there is a young lady, a ninth-grader, who is a phenomenal artist and has sold some of her award-winning work. She didn’t get into a single art class as an elective, but she got into all honors classes for other subjects. She knows that is important, because she sees artists at gaming companies making six-figure incomes by combining art and technology.

Matheson: It’s not just about standing in front of a computer crunching numbers. It’s also about understanding cost, how many jobs it is creating and the legal ramifications. So when I hear that question, I go back to 1984 and the creation of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. I think it’s a very analogous situation with STEM because of the way business is linked to education. We’re kind of in the infancy of STEM. You’ve got little pockets of it all over the state. But what is the state as a whole going to do to move it forward? I think that’s important. If we take advantage of this opportunity and business supports STEM education the way that we’re talking about it, then businesses are going to come because they are going to find an educated workforce and a population that understands what STEM education is about.

How can businesses support STEM education?

Matheson: There is a STEM structure out there, but we need the business community to help. I was at the Energy Sustainability Innovation Council meeting last week, and they were setting goals for the year. One of their goals is to make sure that each of the schools in an eight-school network has a business advisory board, which is one of the first things I did when I started this school a year and a half ago. If you’re trying to link businesses to the school, that’s how to do it. That’s where it’s going to come from. It’s not going to come from calling up a guest speaker for a presentation.

Rectanus: Business has always been a real driver of this collaboration, and RTP is a great example. We’ve had a long line of governors and leaders who have driven this effort. When we raise standards, test scores will look different. There will be policy changes that will be needed. I think any business leader knows that when there is a significant shift in business it takes a little time to be accepted. I think it’s going to be critical for the business community to support public education as standards are raised.

Meyer: That’s the challenge: How do we get more into these programs? With the community colleges, outreach is an unfunded mandate. We don’t get any money to go out there and promote. We’ve got our mobile launch pad for critical careers — some people call it the STEM bus, which started with a grant from Duke Energy. In three years it has served more than 30,000 adults and children at different locations, but it’s a drop in a bucket, and it’s unfunded. We need a whole fleet of those buses to reach more kids.

Barnwell: We need to make sure that businesses understand there are other ways to contribute to STEM. It’s not just stroking a check, and it’s not just going to the school to speak. We had great success this past year with an externship where we brought a humanities teacher in to learn about renewable energy. She is able to take that information back into the classroom and help students understand the humanities side of it. I think we need to explore and exploit creative ways for businesses to be involved.

Houston: One thing we do is provide school districts with a five-day intensive planning effort to address science-education reform. The first day we take teams of teachers and others from school districts on a field trip to a 21st-century work environment and let them see what goes on there. It’s so meaningful for a business to help in that way — for the rest of the week it gives that planning group a different way to think about science. Business also brings political clout to the table. If you march forward with a request for education, it’s more powerful if you start with the economy and then tie in education. That relationship changes the discussion.

Rectanus: VIF does professional development for teachers here in the U.S., teaching them how to use the engineering-design process to deliver instruction. This style of teaching is not just STEM, but it does include STEM. It’s exactly the type of instruction that we want teachers and students to think about. Part of that includes instituting lessons where businesses, the community or students are addressing social challenges, and they need experts who can get involved. That connects education to business.

Zannoni: Another thing businesses can do is define what jobs are really about. When I decided to be a pharmacist, it wasn’t about going into a technical field. It was because I saw the pharmacist as a respected member of the community. So all the science and math I took was a means to an end. So if you get people enthusiastic about that end, they’ll get excited about getting there. I think sometimes students don’t see the final job.

How can businesses help STEM education engage more students in the state, especially minorities and female students? 

Matheson: As a state, we’ve got a whole group of kids who are discouraged from pursuing STEM disciplines, which means the business community is missing a portion of the population that can do these jobs. We need to encourage more females and minorities to pursue these studies. We recruit underserved and underrepresented groups. Our first year was 50-50 male to female. It was 70% nonwhite and more than 40% free and reduced-cost lunch students. This year more than 50% of our students would be the first ones in their families to go to college. These kids produced 100% proficiency in English, 100% in algebra and 97% growth in math. They are making A’s, B’s and C’s in honors-level classes with master teachers. So the question is: How did students from these demographics accomplish that work when classic high schools with the same demographics aren’t accomplishing that work?

Barnwell: It’s important that we not make STEM so sophisticated that we fail to bring in the whole population. People should gravitate to STEM because of what it is about. Then we will have a good balance and a diverse population, which businesses need.

Houston: It won’t happen by accident. There has to be a plan to make sure that we get female and minority students involved. If left alone, girls will not migrate to STEM. The SMT Center is part of a $30 million investment in innovation by the U.S. Department of Education. Right now, about 500 teachers and 18,000 kids are involved in a project in which we provide materials and resources. In those classrooms are things for kids to do that bring relevancy to what they’re learning. If you couldn’t see them, you couldn’t tell the girls, the boys and the minorities apart. They get deeply involved in what they’re doing.

Meyer: Community colleges consist primarily of female students right now. You look at our technical programs, and it flip-flops — mostly male. If you look at our faculty in those technical programs, you don’t see very many females, and you don’t see very many minorities either. That’s a big problem in our technical programs. Maybe that’s how business can help us. If you have a fantastic woman engineer or machinist, send her our way because we need them to teach those types of classes and inspire that group of students.

Rectanus: I think it’s important to get STEM education to students early. We support more than 20 language-immersion schools around the state. These students take the entire regular curriculum in a target language, such as Mandarin or Spanish. We have longitudinal data on these students, and regardless of socioeconomic, demographic or geographic background, they are outscoring their peers 22% in reading, and they have 95% proficiency in math. As far as I can tell, it may be one of the best early STEM programs in the state. It has documented support because you’re teaching students to think in two different systems at once, which is what we ask them to do in STEM all day long. Businesses also can help encourage what we want to see. So whether it’s sponsoring robotics competitions or something else, catch girls and minorities — students in general — doing good and celebrate that.

Houston: I had a chance to visit a company in China that hires engineers from all over the world. I asked the human-resources people what they look for when hiring. They didn’t have to have electrical, chemical or mechanical engineers — they said they just wanted engineers. They don’t worry about what kind, because in six months they’re going to be the company’s engineers. In all of the candidates they look for what they call “learnability.” I think that’s kind of the heart of this STEM discussion. We don’t know what the kids need to know for sure, but we need to make sure that they know how to deal with new information as they are confronted with it.

This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Business North Carolina magazine.