What I learned Attending the White House Science Fair: The Future Looks Bright for STEM Education
The last science fair I went to was at least 10 years ago—maybe even 15. I remember the baking soda volcanos and learning how to make an egg float. On April 13, I attended the White House Science Fair, an event that served as a huge inspiration and important reminder as to why we need to continue to invest in our youth.
When President Obama announced that the White House would make a $4 Billion investment to increase hands-on computer science education at the end of January, I was thrilled. In 2013, only 30,000 students took the AP computer science examine. That is out of a high school student population that exceeded 14 million that year. And even among those 30,000 students, the passing rate was below 70 percent. Is this the best we can do?
Leading Corporate Social Responsibility for a large tech company— with over 20,000 employees in my region alone—I’m well-versed in the challenges facing youth around science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills and the talent shortfall this is creating for SAP and our vast business network. I hear from the teachers, schools and students our programs serve that the training opportunities in one of the most highly paid industries aren’t there. Like many other companies, our strategic philanthropic programs focus on this challenge. Our charter is to “equip youth with the skills needed to thrive in a digital economy.”
As a tech company, we must re-examine what we were doing. To further support this initiative, SAP will deepen relationships in areas where we have large employee bases, like Boston, Silicon Valley and Atlanta, to support disadvantaged students and get them ready for careers in tech. Our employees play a key role in mentoring, training and inspiring (and, more frequently, being inspired by) students. Partnerships with organizations like Jobs for the Future, Career Ladders Project and National Academies Foundation help to connect the dots between high school and careers in technology, especially as we work to develop business technology pathways directly to STEM majors and even STEM-based careers. We have established early college high schools, like BTECH and C-Town Tech, that offer students technical training and an associate’s degree in a STEM field.
It’s events like the White House Science Fair that highlight what young people are capable of when they are challenged. Events like this are what I live for; I get to see first-hand the innovation that our students, like Shemar Coombs and Girl Scouts from Troop #1484, are capable of.
Take Shemar, a student from the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) in Philadelphia. He created a solution to an annoying problem we all face in today’s digital world: tangled headphones. “The teacher asked us to come up with an idea that would make an impact, and my idea was to pull out my headphones and listen to music to get inspired, but I spent the whole time untangling my headphones. The next day, I said, ‘I’m going to find a solution to this,’” Shemar told me at the WHSF. And he has, with the help a partner NextFab, who lets him use their 3D printers for his prototypes. Shemar is experiencing first-hand what it feels like when an idea comes to life.
Girl Scouts Troop #1484 from Missouri is similarly inspiring. With styrofoam taking more than 500 years to dispose of under natural circumstances, the troop found a chemical in oranges that dissolves it. After
20,000 styrofoam cups per month, they found that it worked! The best part: The substance that’s left over is a strong non-toxic glue. The seventh grade girls in Troop #1484 now have two patents pending.
There’s no question we have to continue to support students like these to pursue careers in STEM. And while we’re unsure which tech jobs will exist even in five years’ time, we do know that in today’s digital economy most professions are dependent on it. So, although not every student will want a career in technology, most students will have a career that uses it, and that is what we have to prepare them for. It’s our responsibility to our youth.