10/02/2013 06:20 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2013

Chicago Professionals Need to Inspire Next Generation of Innovators

Just 10 years from now, today's sixth graders will enter the workforce, and even sooner if they don't pursue a two- or four-year degree. If you are a parent, you'll recognize how quickly those 10 years will fly by. It's a scary realization to think that these children only have those 10 years to grow, learn and fully prepare for a world that is changing quickly and becoming more complicated with each day.

As the president and CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, I hear daily from leaders in the business, scientific, technology, engineering and health sectors about their immediate and long-term needs for a skilled workforce. CEOs from major, international corporations headquartered in Chicago, many of which are Fortune 500 companies, have shared with me that they are more concerned about the technical capability of their future workforce than any other single issue.

They need lab technicians, nurses, machinists, database administrators, software developers, engineers and more. These are some of the job fields that are projected to grow significantly in the years to come, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics noting that STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17 percent from 2008 to 2018, compared with 9.8 percent growth for non-STEM occupations. And the Brookings Institution cites that as of 2011, 20 percent of all jobs in this country require a high level of knowledge in a STEM field.

But at that same time, American students may be losing their competitive edge in math and science. Students from other nations are improving and surpassing us in international rankings while our test scores remain stagnant. That's where inspiration needs to intervene. Yes, science and math can be challenging, as are many fields of study. But our kids are capable of a challenge. (If they can learn the ins and outs of the newest smartphone operating system and uncover the nuances of the latest video game, then their technical know-how surpasses countless adults.) If we come together as a society and really showcase the exciting possibilities that exist in science and technology to our kids--especially those who need possibilities the most, the kids who are underserved in our communities--we have the chance to create a country with a thriving workforce, better communities and a stronger country that offers innovative solutions for the world.

In the days and weeks ahead, Chicago will be home to two events that demonstrate how business and scientific communities are working to inspire youth, particularly those in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), to see their full potential. The first event is on Friday, Oct. 4 and Saturday, Oct. 5, when MSI will host Science Works: Cool Jobs, Hot Careers, a STEM career fair designed to inspire kids about the future. The event kicks off with a kids-only, high-profile discussion and Q&A featuring three Chicago CEOs: Desiree Rogers of Johnson Publishing, Patrick Magoon of Lurie Children's Hospital and Frank Clark, retired from ComEd. During the two-day event, more than 75 other STEM professionals will be located throughout the Museum--offering one-on-one discussions, demonstrations and activities for the students who attend.

The second event is Chicago Ideas Week (CIW), Oct. 14-20. This year's lineup is another thoughtful and impressive array of entrepreneurs, scientists, tech experts and innovators. CIW founder and co-Chairman Brad Keywell and his team are sharing the genius and accessibility of CIW this year with more than 450 CPS high school students in a program called CIW YOU(th). Mayor Rahm Emanuel helped kick off the CIW YOU(th) component last week, when the kids learned that they'll get to tour behind the scenes at a variety of companies and organizations, hear motivational talks from leaders in the arts and sciences, and gain valuable networking skills.

Chicago's professional community understands that they have to connect earlier with students in hopes of building their future workforce. We have to help STEM come alive during those formidable years of middle school when science starts to become more difficult. Our country's future depends on fostering that comprehension and appreciation so that today's sixth graders will be ready to take on tomorrow's challenges.