Business and Education Round Table
North Carolina must invest in science and technology education to build a stronger, more capable workforce.
Eric Guckian, senior education adviser to Gov. Pat McCrory
John Hardin, executive director, N.C. Department of Commerce Office of Science, Technology & Innovation
Tony Habit, president, North Carolina New Schools, a Raleigh-based education-innovation agency that works with the government and the private sector
Michele Holbrook, plant manager, Corning Inc., optical communications division, Wilmington
Terri Helmlinger Ratcliff, vice provost for outreach and engagement, executive director of Industrial Extension Service, N.C. State University
Richard “Stick” Williams, vice president of corporate community affairs, Duke Energy Corp., and president, The Duke Energy Foundation
Biogen Inc. sponsored the discussion, which was held at its offices in Morrisville. Additional support was provided by Duke Energy Corp., North Carolina New Schools and the N.C. State University Industrial Extension Service. The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Let’s start with the ultimate, big question. Why is STEM education important to North Carolina businesses?
Guckian: From a government standpoint, what we hear pretty consistently from businesses across not only our state, but our country, is that STEM skills are in high demand at all levels of the continuum. Take health care as an example. From the entry-level parts of the organization to the doctors and business side, being able to demonstrate your competency around science, technology, engineering and math is just critical. And we are clearly not meeting the demands that certainly Research Triangle Park and the entire state have in terms of a qualified STEM workforce.
Hardin: If you look at the share of the economy that’s composed of high-tech companies, the proportion that those companies represent, while still a minority, is growing over time. And STEM does not simply include people in white lab coats. It’s all levels of the workforce: Ph.D., master’s, bachelor’s and associate level. So as the economy becomes more high-tech-oriented, the share of the workforce that needs to be skilled in STEM-related disciplines is increasing.
Habit: I think this is a moment of deep transformation in education because of what’s happening globally with science and technology. We’ve had a series of visitors from China, Thailand, Malaysia and other countries. What we hear from them consistently is it’s not just about more majors in STEM disciplines; it’s really about rethinking education in total so that the emphasis on creativity and skills is a part of the design. That calls for us to work together in different ways, blending the needs of the private sector, higher education and the K-12 system in a more tight coupling that can measure and advance skills instead of just looking at how we’re getting that pipeline toward the next doctoral degree or the next engineer.
Williams: When you consider the economy of North Carolina and South Carolina over the years, manufacturing has been a bedrock. But when you go into a manufacturing facility now, it’s not your father’s manufacturing facility. So the need to have workers that are skilled in working with the machinery and the technology is transforming every sector of the economy. We’ve got to make certain that we’ve got a population in this state that has the ability and creativity to adjust and adapt and to make even better processes.
Ganguly: On a macroeconomic level, the STEM jobs are the future. From my perspective at Biogen, the life-sciences industry is growing at a rapid pace. If you go into a manufacturing facility today, you’re blurring mathematics, science and what used to be fundamental technology that you’d only see in labs. Fundamentals around curricula need to keep up with the pace at which industry is evolving. North Carolina has a great opportunity to lead the world in terms of trying to ensure that we innovate in the space and we aren’t just compliant to a set of fundamental core disciplines that form the existing process. Our CEO talks about a biotech revolution. And we have an opportunity right now to decide whether we want to be active participants in the revolution or mute spectators on the sideline.
Holbrook: Today’s manufacturing is very high-tech. Most plants are highly automated. They rely on computerized systems to operate the equipment, to run the processes. It is important that at every level within the organization, we have people who are able to work with that equipment and carry out the complex tasks that we need them to do.
Ratcliff: It’s not just the newer, emerging industries in high technology that are going to require change. It is everybody. Many years ago, I was an industrial power engineer with what is now Duke Energy. A Coca-Cola bottling plant was one of my customers. It was a very simple manufacturing process. The workers were just watching bottles go by, making sure that the labels were going on correctly. Three years ago, I went to the same company, and no longer did you have people just standing in a line making sure labels were put on correctly. Now you had people running. They had responsibility for whole product lines. And what are they doing? They’re trying to figure out how to refine that process on a computer. That requires huge amounts of skills.
What changes need to be made in the state’s educational system?
Guckian: We’ve all said it in different ways, but thinking of STEM as just a need for more science majors is an old paradigm. As an educator, one of the things that I value most is you’ve got to have a constant feedback loop. At E.K. Powe Elementary School in Durham, where we send our two daughters, they had this coding day. I thought, well, I don’t know what this is going to be, because I’m certainly not a coder. But really, it was a bunch of first-graders working with patterns on how to solve a problem. And that’s what we’re all trying to do. We’re all trying to solve problems. Regardless of the problem, whether it’s welding or a literature paper, we’ve got to work in teams and get that kind of instant feedback because that’s what builds the growth mentality that we want to see in the people we employ. It’s certainly what we want to see in our students: the ability to gain that mastery and then continue to grow from that mastery.
Ganguly: And the notion that the nouns in STEM are going to stay the same ten years from now is gone. Science will change. Biology will change. Computational physics will change. The equipment that will operate our plants will change. It’s critical reasoning. It’s critical thinking. It’s the ability to have very, very steep learning curves covered very quickly.
Habit: The scope of the change that’s required for us to meet these demands is enormous. The old pattern of programs and one-off strategies will distract our attention from the broader, more integrated and aligned strategies we have to have. And that calls for a very different relationship between higher education, the private sector and government. We really have to create an infrastructure for innovation, and that’s quite difficult to do when you’re so used to working in political cycles that run off every two years or every four years. I would say that leadership is called for to think differently, certainly to think strategically, and to get beyond the next quarter or two.
What are some ways that companies are getting involved in the classroom?
Holbrook: A few years ago, one of our employees had a middle-school student. The student’s teacher approached the parent and said, “Hey, I know you work at Corning, and you’re around a lot of engineers and scientists. I’m noticing that a lot of the female students within our class, when we’re talking about science or we’re talking about math, they hold back. They’re not as fast to engage as the boys within the class. Would you be willing to send over some female engineers to just spend some time talking with the girls in the class?” What that really sparked was a multiyear program. We’re now in our third year where we send female employees in two or three times a month to work with that same class, that same group of girls. They’re starting to see the diversity of STEM because there are so many different fields.
Ganguly: That is such a powerful example, because I have seen some very depressing statistics on how women have a pivotal point when they get discouraged to move into STEM. If we want to get to the point where we need to be, we need everybody to be interested in STEM. And the No. 1 precursor to that is seeing and observing someone and envisioning yourself in that career 20 years from now. Biogen follows a similar principle. The biggest thing we do at those pivotal junctures where people lose interest in STEM is get them introduced to a microbiologist, get them introduced to a scientist. Let them know we have women directors of manufacturing on the floor, to picture yourself that way.
Habit: Duke Energy is a partner with UNC Charlotte around the creation of a very innovative, STEM-focused secondary school on the UNC Charlotte campus. That school is designed around creativity and requiring and supporting the students to solve complex problems instead of memorize.
Williams: Over the 100-year history of Duke Energy, we determined that in order for us to survive we had to be very engaged. We didn’t call it STEM back then, of course, but in our company and in our industry, we had a tremendous hunger for folks that were technically competent. So we started investing, allowing our people to even teach so that there would be this great pipeline of talent coming out. We’ve now been able to term our overall efforts K-to-Career, because we’ve got to start in K-12, and we’ve got to be very, very strong in K-12. We’ve got to make certain that the teachers know how to teach in such a way that girls and boys, regardless of what economic level they come from, are excited about these technical fields. We also invest in community colleges, because they’re right there on the ground now trying to help fill needs. And we have a long history with the engineering and technical schools in our service territory to be certain that we’ve got that pipeline of talent.
Hardin: There are lots of ways industry gets involved in education. One way is the First Robotics competition. North Carolina has its own chapter, and the annual First Robotics competition was held in the spring. The students come together, and in a matter of six weeks, they’re given a kit of materials to turn into a robot that has to perform a certain set of tasks. And they always manage to pull it together. What’s great about it is that they’re learning and applying science and technology, but they’re learning so many other skills that come through STEM, and that’s networking skills; it’s teamwork; it’s branding; it’s marketing. And it’s really the skill for how to pivot when something goes wrong, which it inevitably will, multiple times.
Ratcliff: This year at the competition, the Early College High School in rural Rutherfordton had their very first robotics team. The young woman that captained the team — she worked for three years to get this team pulled together — was going to go to law school. After the experience with First Robotics, she’s going to give serious consideration to becoming an engineer.
Hardin: In April, Cisco Systems sponsored a student Innovation Challenge. Like First Robotics, it’s about challenging teens to create solutions for things that really matter. The kids crackled with excitement. So how do we let every family know that’s as important as basketball, in a state that worships basketball?
What can we learn from apprenticeship programs?
Ratcliff: I was part of a delegation that went to Germany to evaluate apprenticeships. They start kids at 12 years old with apprenticeships in the German education system. And there’s not a question about whether STEM is required because they’ve experienced it. Their brothers, their sisters, their parents experienced it. It starts slotting people immediately. I think apprenticeships are something we in the United States really need to embrace.
Habit: We need quality, work-based experiences for students and for teachers — especially for teachers in the core curriculum courses. In the past, we designated certain teachers to be career-focused for students, and it’s that thinking that has prevented and frustrated our progress.
Guckian: I think industry and businesses can really serve education well when they can really define what it’s going to take in a certain profession: What are the skills, and what do you need to know? The earlier we can do it, the more it saves time and money and gives you the employees that you need. And you don’t do that by just saying you have to meet this skill; you do it through rigorous experimentation. And you do this by failing a lot. You can call it tinkering, but let’s just go ahead and call it failing.
I’ll use another analogy from my daughters. My daughter’s a swimmer, and she’s 9 years old. The first time she was on the swim team, she came in dead last. But they always gave her her time so she could see the improvement that she was making. What we do in schools is we say, well, you came in last. And we lose entire populations, entire generations of kids because they say, “I’m not very good at school.” But we need to say, “Keep trying,” and, “Look, you’ve improved this much.” We don’t do enough of using that formative kind of feedback loop so that kids stay in the pool.
Ganguly: I love this example. The notion of science is based on a set of small, sustained experiments. No one ever got it right on the beta version, right? In biotech, it takes 25 drugs before you hit the next commercial drug. You don’t stop in clinical trials. And industry has an obligation to help part of that because you’re not going to get people that come for instant gratification in science.
At both our campuses, in Cambridge and in RTP, we have a Community Lab for students. Our director designs real-life experiments, where the students fail — they fail repeatedly. But they get lab notebooks, and they get interested. They’ve got the safety glasses, and they construct these wonderful hypotheses around various experiments. Our only hope is they leave a little bit more interested and a lot more curious. I think that’s the only way to do it. Industry has that obligation of using its resources to feed people’s curiosity at those pivotal points. And the more we can do it, and with as diverse a population, the better it is.
What other skills are needed?
Habit: We were very pleased, along with Gov. McCrory and Jack Bailey, the president of GlaxoSmithKline, to launch something called the STEM Accelerator as a way to bridge the relationship between business and industry, higher education and the K-12 system. We’ve realized that teachers need much deeper training in mathematics and science to be able to teach in a creative way. So the STEM Accelerator is going to work with many higher-education partners to deepen training for teachers in mathematics and science, then literally accelerate the good work that’s being done in classrooms around the state by working with business and industry and the school systems to set up demonstration sites where teachers can observe and reflect. In North Carolina, we’ve got wonderful assets and remarkable leadership to make this possible.
Holbrook: Along with communication, I think teamwork is also becoming very important. With the technology that we have, there are certain processes where employees have to work together, and their ability to communicate helps make them more or less efficient. So we’ve partnered with one of our local community colleges to be able to help put all of our employees through teamwork training. It’s just a great example of us partnering with not just K-12 school systems, but at the community-college level.
Ratcliff: Let’s not overlook the fact that every career track right now involves high technology. Consider something as opposite as the art world. They’re applying a lot of science to how art is created, how it’s restored, how it’s preserved. So STEM is getting blurred to the point where it’s really not the topic. It’s the way we go about educating — period. The way we go about keeping ourselves fresh and current, not just for work but for life.
Ganguly: Apple is a great example. They hire artists and scientists. They pay as much attention to form as they do the technology in product design. And we find that same thing in the life-sciences industry. We talk about patient convenience in the way drugs are administered. But very few patients actually come into a plant and see the equipment. Their experience with the drug is the package inserts, what they see. The lines are getting so blurred right now. I don’t think there will ever be a time when things like teamwork, leadership, communications and aesthetics will lose relevance, but they will get so merged in that you will not be able to separate the product from the process.
What else needs to be done?
Habit: How do we retrain teachers and administrators to emphasize exploration and problem solving, not memorization? We all must work together, rethinking assessments and rethinking how we reward schools for approaching teaching and learning in new and different ways. That’s the level of transformation that’s so urgent.
Ratcliff: We need to form lots of team efforts in local communities. But the focus needs to be where we are with the global standard.
Holbrook: The U.S. is competing for jobs globally, and North Carolina is competing against all of the other states.
Ratcliff: Right. And by focusing on our education system and the advancement of STEM, it allows us to be a much more competitive state.
Guckian: Regardless of what we do at this table or at private-sector boardrooms, it’s the teachers and the administrators that are going to drive the change that we want to see. Teacher pay has obviously been a huge issue, and rightfully so. That alone is not going to do it. We have to have a real, innovative reorganization around how schools are run.
Hardin: This is not an RTP, Wilmington or Charlotte conversation. This is about all 100 counties.
Photos by John Gessner