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Advancing the STEM Agenda

Plastics Business

The manufacturing industry is not alone in its interest in promoting STEM to youth; the educational community also has taken note of the need. In June, a conference on STEM education convened on the campus of Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, MI. The event was sponsored by the university's Seymour and Esther Padnos College of Engineering and Computing and the ASQ (American Society for Quality) Education Division.

According to the event website, the need for more scientists and engineers in the workplace has never been greater for increasing innovation and economic growth. This need is driving the intense interest in the Advancing the STEM Agenda.

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics initiatives increase interest and prepare high school students for college STEM majors, recruit and retain students as STEM majors or mentor them into their STEM careers as scientists, STEM technicians and engineers.

Cindy Veenstra, Ph.D., was the conference co-chair for the event. "I am the immediate past chair for the ASQ Education Division," she explained. "Our membership includes K-12 educators, faculty, professors and deans in universities and also people in industry who either are really interested in supporting education outreach efforts or are involved in workforce development." The conference has had four tracks – K-12 STEM, which focuses on preparing students to be STEM majors; a higher education track that aims to improve teaching and learning at the university level; a track on developing partnerships in industry; and track that works to find ways to get more students into the STEM pipeline, particularly women and minorities.

"The 2013 conference was themed around collaboration with industry," said Veenstra. "We wanted to discuss success stories, particularly co-ops and internships, as well as K-12 outreach." Conference sessions included a panel discussion on industry initiatives to prepare STEM professionals, with participation from Dow Chemical, NASA Johnson Space Center, GE Aviation Systems and others; presentations base on peer-reviewed papers on teaching lean Six Sigma, aviation-themed camps to engage middle school girls, promoting STEM education through the Ford High School science and technology programs; and a discussion on balancing the needs of industry and academia.

Veenstra believes that many schools today are looking for industry partners, and that the benefits are numerous for the students and the company. "If we want students to have more 21st century skills, companies need to develop a relationship with the local school system so work situations can be brought into the school. Inspiring and keeping students in the pipeline is a process, so inspiring them with classroom discussion in middle and high school is essential, but we also need to provide internships to keep students inspired and engaged into their college years. In return, students return to their studies more motivated and may become future employees."

Veenstra suggested steps as simple as volunteering engineers to participate in a career day, which most schools have even at the elementary level. Engineers also could come into science classes at the high school level to discuss college coursework and career options. She added, "A more involved approach could include working with a group of teachers on an industry-based project that could be brought into the classroom."

Quoting the 2012 President's Council of Advisors in Science and Technology report, "Engage to Excel," Veenstra said that in the next 10 years, one million more STEM graduates will be needed. "That sets up a very broad image of how serious this problem is," she said. "Industry wants to see more college graduates with 21st century workforce development skills, including better communication, teamwork approaches, adaptability and problem-solving. The conference was designed to take a step toward addressing those needs."

All 30 of the peer-reviewed papers presented at the conference are available online to interested readers.