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STEM Solutions Summit 2012: Focusing on the Gaps

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An extraordinary event took place from June 27 to 29 in Dallas, where the U.S. News STEM Solutions Summit 2012 brought together about 800 CEOs and other leaders concerned with improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in America. I had expected it to be a helpful, if familiar, gathering of like-minded people. Instead, I left exhilarated by the broad diversity of leaders committed to understanding and implementing the changes needed to restore American prominence in STEM education.

The Summit was impressively orchestrated by U.S. News & World Report Editor Brian Kelly and Executive Editor Margaret Mannix. And pivotal to establishing it as a true Summit was the presence and active involvement of U.S. News' Chairman Mortimer Zuckerman, a business leader of international renown. He has now stepped forward in a wholly new way as a crucial leader in advancing STEM education in America.

To provide a sense of the Summit, it's important to name some of the many renowned speakers involved, not to single out a few but to reflect the diverse range of leaders focused on STEM education. That diversity, of so many different backgrounds and perspectives, was key to the Summit's success and its ongoing potential.

Among the speakers were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, all-time NBA leading scorer; Charles F. Bolden, Jr., Administrator, NASA; Wes Bush, Chairman and CEO, Northrup Grumman; Tim Daly, President, The Creative Coalition; Antonio Flores, President and CEO, Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities; Matthew Goldstein, Chancellor, City University of New York; Dean Kamen, renowned entrepreneur and Founder of FIRST; Ellen Kullman, Chair and CEO, DuPont; Marc Morial, President and CEO, National Urban League; Ron Painter, CEO, National Association of Workforce Boards; Mary Ann Rankin, CEO, National Math + Science Initiative; Betty Shanahan, CEO, Society of Women Engineers; Beth Shiroishi, President, AT&T Foundation; Brad Smith, General Counsel, Microsoft; Barbara Snyder, President, Case Western Reserve University; Eric Spiegel, President and CEO, Siemens; Jeff Wadsworth, President and CEO, Battelle Memorial Institute; and Steve Zipkes, Founding Principal, Manor New Technology High School.

That diversity of speakers was furthermore reflected throughout the entire event, where CEOs and students, teachers and organization heads, professors and entrepreneurs, foundation leaders and even a few celebrities, gathered to share ideas and insights -- all with a common purpose and a shared recognition that each was essential to the other's success.

What particularly impressed me substantively about the Summit was the extent to which it focused on the gaps that exist in STEM education in America. This is a topic that Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the foundation that I head, is especially concerned about, as we fund research by scholar-educators and students in colleges and universities.

Too often, discussions of STEM education focus on individual levels of education: K-8, high school, college or university. But crucial to our nation's success in STEM education is recognizing and addressing the gaps that exist between those levels: the transitions from elementary to high school, from high school to college, from a two-year college to a four-year institution, from college to graduate school, and from school at any level to employment. These transitions are where so many prospective STEM students fall by the wayside, and the Summit highlighted those gaps and ways to address them.

As U.S. News has reported, Uri Treisman, professor of mathematics at the University of Texas-Austin, called for high schools and colleges to have a better shared understanding of what constitutes "college readiness," adding, "There are massive disconnects between high school programs and higher ed programs." Peggy Walton, Senior Director of workforce readiness at Corporate Voices for Working Families, highlighted a different gap, saying, "If workers are not coming in tech savvy ... they're not going to be successful in the workplace." V. Celeste Carter, program director at the National Science Foundation, urged industries to help community colleges make certification and degree programs more transferable, so that students have more workforce mobility. If a student gets an associate's degree or certification in Florida, she asked, "How does an industry in New Mexico know that that's really a validated certificate that they would accept? Let's create some things that are industry-validated." Northrup Grumman CEO Wes Bush noted that to reduce the gap from education to employment, his company has started actively participating with universities to design curricula that can help fill the company's employment needs.

These gap-closing conversations are crucial, and closing those gaps requires the broad diversity of engagement that the Summit convened. In the panel that I moderated, I told of a class that Robert J. Full, Chancellor's Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, taught. The class had one challenge: Students had to identify a motion by any living organism and build a robot to mimic it. In trying to achieve success with the project, teams made up of all young men failed. Teams made up of all young women failed. Teams made up of people who had a single cultural background failed. The teams that did well were composed of men and women who were thinking in different ways, based on different cultural perspectives.

American STEM education must learn from Bob Full's class, and the U.S. News STEM Solutions Summit 2012 took a giant step in the right direction. This year's inaugural Summit was a beginning -- and a very impressive initiative that, if continued, can play a crucial role in ensuring American preeminence in science and technology and in readying American workers for the jobs at all levels that preeminence will provide.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (www.rescorp.org), which celebrates its Centennial -- 100 years of science advancement -- this year.