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Delivering Value to Our Children: Launching the Empire State STEM Learning Network

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Good morning, and welcome to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Last June, some of you joined us in this very room to launch the Empire State Progressive Dialogue on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education. We are about to take an additional step in addressing our concerns with education today, by moving from discussion and understanding to action. Namely, we are forming the Empire State STEM Learning Network.

Think back to where we were a year ago. The mission we identified was that of advancing STEM disciplines, and strengthening STEM education, across New York State. We sought opportunities to take a new path in making these disciplines clear, relevant and compelling — both for our students, and for the larger communities that support and benefit from education.

We understood what was at stake: jobs, economic health and the vibrancy of our communities — each of which depend upon the capacity of our citizens to create value. The benefits that come from facilitating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are deeply connected with the technological culture in which we live: a culture presented with an array of challenges — health care, national and homeland security, energy security, and climate change, not to mention emergent environmental challenges such as the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — each of which can only be addressed through solutions rooted in scientific discovery and technological innovation.

Let me illustrate from an article in the current issue of Fortune magazine the real challenge. Here is the direct quote:

“In a move to measure its workforce not too long ago, Nationwide Insurance surveyed its 36,000 employees at the time. Its CEO was in for a shock. The single largest employment category had nothing to do with insurance and was instead ‘technology.’ At Nationwide, an entire upper tier of computer scientists had to be brought in from India because the company didn’t have enough in Ohio. ‘You can be selling insurance or manufacturing cars,’ says [Brian] Fitzgerald, [executive director of the Business Higher Education Forum], ‘but almost every American corporation has been turned into a technology operation.’ Nationwide isn’t alone. The number of computer science degrees awarded to U.S. citizens from 2004 to 2007 (the latest figures available) declined 27 percent, according to the National Science Board. But the shortfall isn’t just in computer science. Neither universities nor high schools are preparing enough U.S. students in so-called STEM subject: science, technology, engineering, and math. While observers blame different causes – few deny a crisis exists.

For every new Ph.D. in the physical sciences, according to the Aerospace Industries Association, the U.S. graduates 50 new MBAs and 18 lawyers; more than half of those with bachelor of science degrees still enter careers having nothing to do with science. The ACT testing service says only 17 percent of high school seniors are both interested in STEM majors and have attained math proficiency.”

This then is our real challenge. It is at the root of what I call the Quiet Crisis, and this is precisely why we began this initiative and the Progressive Dialogue a year ago.

The inaugural Empire State Progressive Dialogue event provided a broad spectrum of decision-makers from government and education, as well as leaders from industry, private foundations, and not-for-profit organizations with an opportunity to discuss educational challenges facing New York State, and to conceive of potential strategies for creating a more diverse workforce to remain competitive in the years ahead. The regional dialogues that followed involved business, PK-20 education, government, corporate and private foundations, community-based organizations, and parents who also suggested strategies to help prepare the next generation of New York graduates to create, innovate, and compete in the global economy.

The transformation we sought, and continue to seek, will depend upon continued broad participation. I congratulate the people in this room for successfully bringing forward our discussions in an inclusive, transparent, and mutually beneficial fashion. It is no small thing that ours was not a private discussion among elite experts. While the leaders of these dialogues brought knowledge and relevant skills to our conversations, we also took great pains to invite and welcome more than 500 people with diverse interests.

Allow me to highlight two points that were brought forth vividly through our dialogue process:

  1. First, to be meaningful, STEM education needs to consider and include local concerns and interests. The incorporation of a healthy, vibrant grassroots approach into our efforts will be a priority as we move forward.
  2. Second, this is not just about engineers working with engineers, or scientists working with scientists, or mathematicians working with just with mathematicians. Our efforts will only be relevant if we build bridges across many fields of endeavor. In fact, we clearly have a mandate to develop understanding and mutual respect across disciplines.

We also came to a deeper appreciation of the necessity of working across sectors: not just with education officials, but also with labor, businesses, business development leaders, politicians, parents and the students themselves. We have a diversity of representation within this room. I would like to point out and recognize a few of the people who have joined us today, or who will be joining us later, or who are unable to attend, but also have contributed:

  • Later this afternoon, we will be joined by Dr. David Steiner, the Commissioner of Education and President of the University of the State of New York. Dr. Steiner has taken New York’s effort to qualify for Race to the Top funding, including the Great Teachers initiative. I am sure he will have insightful comments when he addresses you.
  • Regent Emeritus Joseph Bowman, who was not able to join us, has years of expertise in curricula development and in illuminating the role of community in making science and technology initiatives pay off, so we want to thank him for his participation on the Progressive Dialogue work group.
  • In the house is Mr. Edward Reinfurt, the Executive Director of NYSTAR. Ed is an expert on available resources and how to leverage them — thank you, Ed. NYSTAR, the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation, helps advance STEM to spur economic growth across the state.
  • Mr. Duffy Palmer, New York State Deputy Secretary of Education for Governor Paterson, is here. Mr. Palmer helped add nearly 10 million dollars in afterschool fundin” for his work.
  • Mr. Joseph Frey, Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Higher Education for the State Education Department, is in the house, as well. Mr. Frey is one of the instigators of the Smart Scholars Program, and we thank him for that.
  • Mr. David Connors, Regional Representative for U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is here. The Senator, of course, is an avid supporter of STEM education and initiatives in the state. And I participated just a few days ago at special summit that she called that brought essentially all the presidents of the universities in the state of New York public and private together to talk about what we could do to lift and advance New York State schools.
  • We have Mr. Michael Tucker, President and Chairman of the Center for Economic Growth, with us today. And the CEG has had a particular role in job creation and has been a partner in helping us to bring both science- and technology-based industry into the state.
  • And we have Mr. Tim Lance, President and Chairman of the New York State Education and Research Network or NYSERnet.
  • And, of course, our Progressive Dialogue would not have been possible without the guidance, participation and support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, represented today by Mr. Steve Barkanic and Dr. Dave Ferrero.
  • We also must recognize the AT&T Foundation and Ms. Marilyn Reznick for their support of the Progressive Dialogue.
  • Margaret Ashida is the Project Director for all of this, and she is the true driver for what we are working on today.
  • I see Jan Morrison over there, who has been a great advisor to us in all of this.

As we celebrate the achievements of a year of work, we also feel anticipation about what is to come. We have learned the importance of responsiveness to specific local needs. We have framed a roadmap for STEM transformation in the form of policies, programs, platforms, and partnerships that will improve the academic and career success of our students. We already have served as a catalyst in mobilizing communities to action. And we have confirmed, through working together, that this will be a collaboration, and not a competition. In a time of scarce resources and great challenges, when it comes to preparing our students for success in the classroom and in the workforce, we are not faced with a zero sum game.

Instead, those achievements and opportunities that industry and academia bring to New York State — supported by effective government action at all levels — will energize a “virtuous spiral” [that is one step better than a “virtuous circle”] of ever broader possibilities and ever deeper understanding, built upon a common goal and common interests: namely, the promise inherent in developing critical thinking skills and in building specific capabilities across the full spectrum of STEM disciplines.

As the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I am proud of our participation to date, but we intend to deepen our commitment to STEM education in New York State, in four ways:

  • The “Triple Helix” project, led by Professor Ron Eglash, will bring together community organizers, the university, and local schools to connect low-income community needs with a synergistic framework for training, education and groundbreaking research.  And he already has the financial support he needs to do this.
  • As many of you know, the New York Smart Scholars program gives students the chance to accelerate the completion of their high school studies, while earning college credits. Rensselaer faculty will be directly supporting this effort by working hand-in-hand with high school teachers as they develop curricula to enable this goal.
  • We also will host an ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp, an enrichment experience for middle school students. We will hold the New York State STEM Summer Enrichment Program for middle school students from Yonkers City Schools and New York City schools. And we will continue with our Summer at Rensselaer program, which attracts students from elementary school through high school.
  • Finally, Rensselaer will provide the resources to house and host the STEM Learning Network office, as well as its website.

So, as you can see, we have some skin in the game. But the value of the Rensselaer contribution can only be realized if it becomes part of an endeavor that:

  • exposes new opportunities,
  • identifies and shares best practices,
  • facilitates Network members working together, and
  • engages with those stakeholders who are essential to the success of the new STEM Learning Network.

Ultimately, the membership of the Network will develop, measure, share, fine tune and even reinvent ways to engage our children in STEM disciplines. The Network will be used to advocate for — but also to listen to, and to develop understanding of — the values and needs of, our communities.

We have a number of significant advantages as we move forward. The first is the experience we have gained in working together. We already have overcome some of the barriers that have kept us apart and made us inefficient in the past. We have identified approaches that work. As we move forward, much of the needed innovation will involve adopting and further enhancing these creative approaches.

We also have technical support — thanks to both IBM and Battelle Memorial Institute, who have pledged to invest in our infrastructure to help us get off the ground.

The work of today — the immediate tasks — will consist of defining the tools we need, assessing the resources we have available, and promoting clear directions for the Network. The work of tomorrow — the urgent goal — will consist of delivering value to our communities, to the New York State economy, and especially to our children. This implicitly is promised by the insights we have gained, and by our willingness to come together in launching this Network. I am confident that what will be born here today will bring to fruition the potential identified and nurtured over the past year.

Now some people know that I like to take quotes from movies, although I don’t have a lot of time to see movies. So let me paraphrase, “Network is as network does.”

Thank you for joining us at this conference, and thank you for making a vital commitment to action on behalf of our future.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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