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Escalating STEM Education

Empire State STEM Education Initiative
Inaugural Progressive Dialogue

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

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, New York

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Good morning.

As President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, it is my great pleasure and privilege to welcome you to the Rensselaer Troy, New York, campus...

...And, to welcome you to the Inaugural Progressive Dialogue of the Empire State STEM Education Initiative.

We will begin with a colloquy titled, “Carpe Momentum, or Seize the Moment” — indeed, it is a fortuitous moment.

This is a moment of intense national self-examination and transformation. We are seeking a more robust economy. We are examining how to develop and conserve energy. We are overhauling our financial structures, and revamping health care, food and drug safety, and even airline regulation. This is a moment when there is a growing predilection to rethink the usual, to take risks, to generate significant change.

Two weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged a national mobilization of educators, funders, policy makers, mathematicians, and scientists to transform mathematics and science education.

This is our charge — to identify ways to advance education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — or the STEM disciplines — across New York State, and throughout all aspects of the New York State education enterprise.

Our mission, during this inaugural progressive dialogue, is to escalate STEM education as a means to several multi-faceted ends.

One “end” is to ignite the innate human desire to discover, innovate, design, and invent — to explore the unknown, to chart a course through uncharted waters, and to add new knowledge to resolve human challenges and improve the human condition.

This one plays into a second “end,” which is to imbue the American economy with the entrepreneurial ideas and innovations upon which thriving, robust industries are built, to bolster our economy and preserve U.S. preeminence and global leadership.

This Inaugural Dialogue will set the pace for a second phase — follow-on state-wide “progressive dialogues” next fall to advance the conversation.

Interestingly, key work began at least eleven years ago with the establishment, in 1998, of the Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development. The commission’s report, released two years later, and titled Land of Plenty: Diversity as America’s Competitive Edge in Science, Engineering and Technology, warned that to sustain America’s preeminence drastic steps were needed “. . . to change the way we develop our workforce.”

Then, over the next decade, there followed a number of analogous reports emanating from a spectrum of national organizations — the National Academies, the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable, the Council on Competitiveness’s Building Engineering and Science Talent Initiative (BEST), the Business Roundtable, and the U.S. Commission on National Security (the Hart-Rudman Commission). Earlier this month, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Institute for Advanced Study, Commission on Mathematics and Science Education, issued The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy. Generally, the report synthesizes prior recommendations, urges national mobilization, and, most uniquely, identifies stakeholder “to do” lists — breaking down undertakings for which each sector should be responsible, with an eye to the broadest and most effective collaboration.

Each effort represented an ever-broadening swath of sectors and interests, and ever-widening national security and economic imperatives. Each emphasized that the United States must do more both to identify all talent and to greatly improve STEM education. Each report came down in much the same place — we must “do school better” if the United States is to have the educated STEM professionals to keep our national innovative edge sharp, and our global competitiveness exceptional.

There are state STEM education initiatives already under way in a number of states, including Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, California, and Washington State. We have with us, today, Ohio STEM Learning Network leaders whose experience, I am certain, will be helpful in our efforts to formulate a vision for New York, and to construct a basis for the progressive dialogues to be held this fall. You will find brief summaries of other statewide STEM Initiatives in the Dialogue Briefing Paper.

Also helpful will be the principles recommended by the Council on Competitiveness’s BEST initiative, to which I referred earlier. They offer excellent guidance for our inaugural discussions. These principles begin with what I call “back to basics” — such as defining the outcomes we expect of students at the different phases of their education. Another principle is building sustained commitment of leaders with the fortitude to stay the course even in challenging economic times. Another is honoring differences with student-centered teaching and learning methods, sustained by mentoring, tutoring, and peer interaction. Yet another is creating challenging content to build foundational knowledge. And finally, developing an engaged adult community to support and inspire students.

Our work today, and throughout the fall, is supported by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Our overarching goal is to unite a partnership to foster positive statewide STEM education transformation.

Your presence here indicates that you are among the state’s major education stakeholders with a particular interest and concern for STEM education. You understand the need, the urgency, and you have access to a variety of enabling capabilities. You derive from a spectrum of sectors — education, government, policymaking, business, industry, and private foundations. You are the ones who can envision an effective statewide dialogue, and arrange the elements that will make STEM education transformation happen, here, in New York State. We are delighted that you have come. We need you. There is much work which must be done.

Our Inaugural Progressive Dialogue is a meeting of minds, a thinking beyond borders. At Rensselaer, we challenge our students and ourselves with a motto: “Why Not Change the World?” The Progressive Dialogue initiative will “change the world” — of STEM education.

Already, we have advantage. Many of you, and others, have labored long and worked hard in this arena, devising and implementing successful programs which are scalable and actionable. We will benefit from this experience. Many have observed what has not worked, and have thought through new approaches and new ideas. We need these ideas.

Our intention, for this inaugural progressive dialogue, is to begin a powerful collaboration of major stakeholders whose reach will take a synthesizing of new approaches, and scale and implement them across the broadest spectrum of New York State education — from pre-kindergarten through elementary, middle, and high school, community college and university, to the most advanced education programs. As we seize this moment, we have the opportunity to make our dreams into reality. It is an important time.

Before we begin the Colloquy, I leave you with three thoughts:

First, our urgent national need for STEM professionals means that we must accelerate the inclusion of all groups, and work, actively and expeditiously, to tap all potential sources of talent. Let me define “all.” While it obviously refers to all of the young people in New York State — including young women and minority and ethnic groups traditionally underrepresented in the STEM disciplines — we, also, want to include adult women and men re-entering the workplace, and continuing education, including armed forces veterans, and persons with disabilities. We cannot risk talent slipping through the cracks.

Second, to create a new cadre — a new generation — of the STEM professionals which we need, means that we have to raise the bar for excellence, that we must reach and teach our students in new, transformative ways, that we must be clear on our goals — our desired outcomes, and we must measure ourselves and our students against those outcomes.

The third is prompted by the news, last week, that a Norwegian Information Technology professional has discovered a new prime number — or what is known in mathematics as a Mersenne prime. Prime numbers, as you know, are divisible by only the number 1, and by themselves — or one less than a power of two. Mersenne prime numbers are unique for their rarity, and for their enormous size — the new one is nearly 13 million digits long. This is only the 47th Mersenne prime discovered since the ancient Greek mathematicians first discovered them. Mersenne primes are used in pseudorandom number generators — algorithms for generating a sequence of numbers that approximates the properties of random numbers. Pseudorandom numbers are important in practice for simulations, and are central in the practice of cryptography. The effort was aided by a massive online computing project called the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (or GIMPS).

I raise this bit of mathematica to put us into the right frame of mind, and because a question should underlie our work, over the next two days, is: who will discover the 48th Mersenne prime? Will they be New Yorkers?

And so, let us roll up our mental sleeves, and let us begin.

Thank you.


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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