Putting STEM to Work

Did you know that 2.5 million jobs are predicted to go unfilled this year alone that require candidates with a science, technology, education, and math (STEM) education?

On June 19th, Communities Foundation of Texas (CFT) and their Educate Texas initiative co-hosted a special panel discussion with the Toyota USA Foundation at the Toyota North America headquarters to bring more attention to STEM needs locally. Like CFT, Toyota USA Foundation has a long history of supporting STEM education efforts.

“We partnered with CFT to bring like-minded partners together to collectively address the STEM skills gap,” said Michael Medalla of the Toyota USA Foundation. “By creatively combining knowledge and resources with other companies, and collaborating with educators, we can affect change, connect students to high demand jobs and uplift communities.”

Panelists for CFT’s “Cause-Minded Conversation: Putting STEM to Work” event included:

  • Andres Alcantar, Chairman, Texas Workforce Commission;
  • Michael Medalla, Manager, Toyota USA Foundation;
  • Dr. Neil Matkin, President, Collin College;
  • Alfreda Norman, Senior Vice President, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas;
  • Monica Egert Smith, Chief Relationship Officer, Communities Foundation of Texas; and
  • George Tang, Managing Director, Educate Texas.

The importance of STEM education goes beyond helping students reach their potential, it’s a means for regions to strengthen their economies. U.S. Department of Labor employment projections over the next decade indicate that of the 20 fastest growing occupations, 15 of them require significant mathematics or science preparation.

Dave Scullin, CFT president and CEO, noted that it is in businesses’ best interest to support STEM education initiatives like those in place at Educate Texas, an innovative public-private partnership established by CFT. The organization and its partners all share a common goal: improving the public education system so that every Texas student is prepared for success in school, in the workforce, and in life. Further inspired by the state’s recognition that 60% of Texans ages 25 to 34 years old will need a post-secondary credential to be gainfully employed by 2030, Educate Texas’ work is even more urgent.

George Tang, managing director for Educate Texas, shared that, “STEM is about how individual students work independently and with others, analyze information, synthesize it into coherent thoughts, and then distill it into something meaningful that they can take action on. STEM is no longer just about science, technology, engineering, and math – what it should really stand for is ‘Successful in Today’s Evolving Marketplace’ –because that’s what it has evolved to here in Texas and across the country.”

Panelist and Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Andres Alcantar agrees. “When we look at the global landscape, STEM is critical to our future and prosperity. It’s at the heart of the majority of our job growth and that’s only going to continue to increase,” said Alcantar.

During the panel, Alfreda Norman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas pointed to surveys of 29 participating Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in which the U.S. ranked 20th in assessments of adult literacy and math skills. “To put the point on the need for more STEM education, according to recent OECD surveys, the U.S. ranks 24th out of 35 developed countries in measures of math, science and reading skills among 15-year-olds,” she said. “We need to do better.”

Throughout the panel, both alarming and hopeful data points were shared regarding local education.

The alarming: Out of our 5.5 million students in public education, 60% of our students are economically disadvantaged. These students often don’t naturally have exposure to STEM or understand its relevance to their current and future paths and careers. Educate Texas and partners are looking to counteract that by starting STEM exposure and immersion much earlier on, in elementary and middle school.

The panel stressed the importance of providing support for students from cradle to career. Michael Medalla of the Toyota USA Foundation encouraged more true STEM partnerships across sectors, highlighting how the Toyota USA Foundation has provided capacity building and expertise in addition to philanthropic dollars. “It’s going to take all of us working together to solve this problem. It’s more than just an employment gap, it’s an inspiration gap and an opportunity gap, too,” he noted. “We need to do more to intervene when students are young to help get them inclined towards STEM and into a STEM career because STEM jobs are good jobs.”

Attention was also drawn to the imperativeness of providing wrap around services and a 360 degree approach to levers that affect successful educational outcomes, such as access to transportation, affordable housing, healthcare and childcare. “If we tackle these issues together, we can truly make a difference for our students, our families and our community,” said Medalla.

Alcantar agreed that partnership is key and encouraged those interested to help start students early with opportunities for mentoring and career guidance. “When students work with company employees and mentors, they begin to see and believe what’s possible for them and think about building their own career pathway.”

The hopeful: Tang shared some major recent STEM successes, particularly for low-income, first generation students that resulted in post-secondary involvement and degree attainment. Educate Texas partnered with Texas Instruments to pilot the nation’s first district-wide STEM initiative at Lancaster ISD, a district in South Dallas of 7,500 students where nearly 90% of the student population is economically disadvantaged. Over the past six years, this TI and Educate Texas investment of $7.0 million has transformed the district. Since 2012, Lancaster student performance has increased in 8th grade math and science. Growth in math scores outpaced state growth for peer populations by twelve percentage points. In the most recent academic year, 8th grade math improved by 26 percentage points – which far outpaces other Dallas County schools and is four times the growth of the state. Additionally impressive, students and families are moving back into Lancaster and the student population has grown two times more than the other districts in Dallas. TI and Educate Texas recently announced a new $4.6 million investment in Richardson ISD.

Collin College is in the process of investing $150 million in technical campuses in North Texas to help prepare students for the future. President Neil Matkin has seen firsthand the positive results of getting more students exposed to STEM. “They often initially think it’s too hard or they can’t do it, it’s scary. But when we immerse students in the field and they see where it leads, when we create opportunities to build the STEM pipeline and work together, we’ve been seeing amazing results that often end with high-paying careers,” said Matkin.

At the event, Al Smith, group vice president, Social Innovation at Toyota Motor North America, announced that the Toyota USA Foundation, together with Project Lead The Way (PLTW), will introduce a program this fall to help students at 12 North Texas schools start a path to thriving careers. As part of a national effort to inspire and prepare students for next-generation jobs, grants totaling $220,000 were awarded to create access to PLTW’s hands-on learning experiences. The program empowers students to adopt a design-thinking mindset through compelling activities, projects and problems that build upon each other and relate to the world around them.

“When it comes to STEM and developing the future workforce, we won’t wait and hope that future generations will have the skills needed to fill open jobs. We’re taking an active role, working together with educators and administrators to have open conversations about the jobs of the future. Our goal is to create a pathway that will prepare students for these high-demand jobs through project-based learning programs, and we’re implementing that philosophy right here in North Texas.”

In addition to partnerships, the panel encouraged advocacy as one way to support STEM. “We need to keep pace with innovation occurring in the work place. We need to support policies that accelerate models that work for employers to offer applied learning opportunities and credentials, especially in our rural and urban areas, as it will pay huge dividends for our students,” said Alcantar.

Norman noted that part of the Dallas Fed’s role is to spotlight and uplift the good work that’s happening and working in our communities. “Together, we’re rolling up our sleeves. Businesses are working with educators, community leaders, business leaders, philanthropists and policy makers to come up with solutions. We can do this together, it just needs to be a priority.”

We know it takes the collective efforts of business, philanthropy, educators and concerned citizens working together to make a lasting difference. As Al Smith said in his opening remarks, “We are better when we are working together. Think of the change we can achieve when we put our heads together. Our challenge is to create a sustainable, positive future for our students, teachers, and communities.”

Will you join us?

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