Choice and destiny came in an unusual package for Bedford, Virginia, high school student Cody Beckner. Fearing the worst when called out of gym class last spring, Cody was relieved and excited to learn about an unexpected glimmer of opportunity. Mrs. Smith, Cody’s school counselor, was recruiting him to apply for a new school she described as a potential “perfect fit” for a student with an aptitude for innovation and problem-solving.
“I have always had an engineering attitude,” says Cody. “I like to build and put things together. I have gotten pretty good at it, and Mrs. Smith saw that in me.”
Beckner, along with 24 other talented students, comprised the inaugural class of the XLR8: Lynchburg Regional Governor’s STEM Academy
, which was declared in August 2013 and represents the 16th academy in Virginia offering programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or “STEM.” Housed on the campus of Central Virginia Community College, XLR8 (pronounced “excel-r-ate”) is the culmination of workforce efforts to build a robust STEM talent pipeline serving a region with vital industries in energy, manufacturing, engineering, and health sciences.
Partnering With Business
One of the business partners in XLR8 STEM Academy is AMTI, an advanced electronics manufacturing and business support services company.
“When we started AMTI, we knew the area had the knowledge workers,” says President and CEO Larry Hatch. “That did work for a short period of time, but then one day we woke up and realized the world is changing, and our extent of knowledge was not keeping pace with newer technologies. How could we get new workers when no one is really investing in manufacturing any more? We had to create them.”
Success in building the next generation of STEM talent depends on collaboration among industry, educators, policymakers, and families...Expanding student access to STEM education is an issue of national prosperity and security.
Jeff Wilcox, Lockheed Martin vice president of Engineering
Hatch says AMTI’s investments in STEM efforts have been “beyond rewarding.” The company began working with high school students as interns. Then Liberty University “lit up the area” with its engineering school. Hatch explains the next step was to reach back into the supply chain to younger students through the region’s Future Focus Foundation
and its network of STEM programs.
“I knew, as with any business investment, the ROI is over a period of time,” continues Hatch. “If I invest $4,000 to $5,000 in a great crop of engineers, I am saving $20,000 in recruiting, relocation, and other collateral costs over the long-term.” Hatch is not alone in his concern for recruiting skilled workers.
National statistics illustrate a vastly inadequate STEM talent supply with future projections portraying an even more dismal employment landscape. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, jobs in STEM are expected to grow 17 percent by 2018 — nearly double the growth of other fields — yet only 16 percent of college graduates have degrees in STEM fields. This, compounded by society’s precarious perch on the cusp of baby-boomer retirements, has looming negative implications for industry retention and growth. A call-to-action fueled by this “perfect storm” is delivering groundbreaking collaborations, such as XLR8, between the public and private sectors.
A team of XLR8-STEM Academy students tests an engineering design project. © AREVA/W.Wright
The core of the XLR8 academy is the innovative, hands-on curriculum provided by Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a national leader in industry-based training programs in partnership with some of the top universities in the nation. Primary and secondary school educators also play a big part in creating program content that is the “latest and most relevant,” according to PLTW Chief Communications Officer Dorothy Powers.
Powers describes ongoing PLTW programs with Toyota and Chevron. Toyota recruits PLTW students seamlessly into a top technician career pathway in the nation. “Chevron has partnered with us for a long time, and through a more recent donation, we are helping build the workforce pipeline for its supply base,” adds Powers. In February, PLTW announced a $6 million national partnership with Lockheed Martin to expand STEM programs in select U.S. urban school districts.
“Success in building the next generation of STEM talent depends on collaboration among industry, educators, policymakers, and families,” says Jeff Wilcox, Lockheed Martin vice president of Engineering. “Our partnership with Project Lead The Way is designed to educate and inspire tomorrow’s scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Expanding student access to STEM education is an issue of national prosperity and security.”
Studies continue to show that the United States is falling behind other countries in STEM...By working with like-minded partners, such as the Siemens Foundation and 3M, we provide students with engaging, hands-on ways to explore the science that powers their world
Lori McFarling, chief marketing officer of Discovery Education
Motivating the Next Generation
Globally, the nonprofit organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology
) designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in STEM.
“This country is at risk of losing its innovative edge,” warns FIRST Founder Dean Kamen. “There is an urgent need to train the next generation of innovators so we can bolster our economic standing. We need businesses to invest in bright young minds now so they can enter the STEM workforce ready to solve the complex challenges of the future. I am convinced that the students we engage in hands-on innovation challenges in FIRST will help us solve these problems.”
FIRST is a frontrunner in utilizing industry collaboration to tackle wilting employment forecasts. In manufacturing, the evolution to advanced manufacturing has created growing demands for technically skilled workers.
“In 2010 the Automation Federation and the International Society of Automation (ISA) became Strategic Alliance Partners with FIRST,” says Mike Marlowe, managing director, Automation Federation - The Voice of Automation. “We view this alliance as an important step to assist in the Automation Federation’s effort to build the next generation of automation professionals.”
Getting the Message Out
Government and media entities are also seeking opportunities to partner with industry. NASA
has worked closely with Lockheed Martin and other institutions, as well as the White House, on various STEM initiatives. Discovery Education, part of the global media company Discovery Communications, is strengthening a STEM relevant message with industry support.
In March 2013, NASA unveiled an Exploration Design Challenge that gives students K-12th grade the opportunity to play a unique role in the future of human spaceflight. The challenge asks students in the U.S. and abroad to think and act like scientists to overcome one of the major hurdles for deep space long-duration exploration. This education-focused effort was developed through a Space Act Agreement between NASA and Lockheed Martin, in collaboration with the National Institute of Aerospace.
“Studies continue to show that the United States is falling behind other countries in STEM,” says Lori McFarling, chief marketing officer of Discovery Education. The organization’s partnerships span STEM academies for teachers and camps for students, as well as online resources and competitive events
. “By working with like-minded partners, such as the Siemens Foundation and 3M, we provide students with engaging, hands-on ways to explore the science that powers their world.”
Some of us like math, and some of us like writing. We all like working as a team..
Rong Ni, XLR8 STEM Academy student
An Investment in the Future
Grassroots initiatives such as the XLR8 STEM Academy illustrate tailoring a national movement to be reflective of critical workforce needs at the local level. Although most sci-tech industries now have a global customer base, the recruitment of talent is most cost effectively developed from a diverse, local candidate pool vested in the community.
Rong Ni, who goes by “Ni,” is a STEM Academy student from Campbell County, Virginia. She and her family immigrated to the U.S. from China in 2010. Ni shares how much she enjoys a diverse student cohort and collaborative curriculum imitating the environment that will be encountered as a professional engineer.
“Some of us like math, and some of us like writing. We all like working as a team,” says Ni who articulates the focus on soft skill development, a core component of integrated STEM learning.
“We see this (STEM) as a long-term investment in our future, and we would encourage others to see it the same way,” says Sandy Baker, president of Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Operations Group, Inc., headquartered in Lynchburg, Virginia. “For example, over the past 20 years, our engineers have participated in a high school mentoring program and reached more than 2,000 students — many of whom have gone on to college and then joined Babcock & Wilcox as full-time employees. This is the kind of success we like to see. Here in Central Virginia, we are involved in a number of programs in middle and high schools…We are also involved in the Region 2000 Machine Industry Program and participate in engineering and technical mentorship and sponsorship programs with Central Virginia Community College (CVCC).”
“What distinguishes STEM initiatives at CVCC is that we are not ivory towers,” says CVCC President Dr. John Capps. “We are striving to meet the real needs of the communities we serve, and STEM is the lifeblood of our region.”
Capps says when he first heard of the proposed XLR8 STEM Academy, he thought it was a great concept, but it might not be realistic. The timeframe and economic conditions provided huge hurdles to overcome. “Our region embraced the vision, saw the need, and was willing to support both financially and programmatically,” shares Capps.
AREVA North America CEO Mike Rencheck agrees. “We support the engineering and technical education pipeline from K-12 and beyond through both financial investment and employee volunteerism. As a forward-looking energy company, AREVA recognizes that we play an important role in sustaining the economic vitality of our local communities, and that when they thrive, we also thrive…While our outreach supports our business objectives, it is also an important expression of our commitment as a good corporate citizen in the communities in which we live and work.”