November 18, 2019

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STEM: Using the Power of Pro Bono to Drive Tomorrow's Innovators

A random national sample of more than 650 teachers in grades K-through-five found that only four percent of the teachers had undergraduate degrees in science or science education.

Jeffrey_sigma

A Billion + Change is a national campaign inspiring the largest commitment of corporate pro bono service in history. To date, more than 360 of America’s favorite brands have pledged an estimated $2 billion worth of services to help nonprofits meet critical community needs. In this installment, Sigma-Aldrich’s Manager for Global Citizenship Jeffrey Whitford shares the company's pledge to the campaign—improving STEM education through a multi company collaborative effort called STEMpact.

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Thomas A. Edison once said, “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would astound ourselves.”

That’s how I view science – the endless discovery, the infinite ability to improve the quality of life, simply put, it’s astonishing. Yet, despite its limitless possibilities many students in the U.S. have little to no access to quality Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education while many lack the interest or skills needed to obtain a degree or work in STEM-related fields. 

Consider the statistics: according to the National Center for Education Statistics:

Of the 3.8 million ninth graders in the U.S., roughly 233,000 end up choosing a degree in STEM – that’s only six out of every 100 students. Of that 233,000, 38 percent of all undergraduate students who enroll with a STEM major do not graduate with one, according to the National Math and Science Initiative.

Despite the low interest however, STEM careers in the U.S. are one of the fastest growing job categories. We’re seeing that the pipeline can’t meet the demand even though STEM careers pay 26 percent more than non-STEM careers. Many high-paying STEM jobs continue to go unfilled, compelling companies to turn to other countries for STEM professionals – all the while, U.S. students are falling behind other industrialized nations in math and science skills. 

A billion + change

With millions of Americans unemployed and underemployed, this is an alarming trend and a tremendous opportunity.

Seizing an Opportunity: Starting at Home

As a company that relies heavily on STEM-ready college graduates, Sigma-Aldrich realized an opportunity to help address this problem. With 9,000 employees worldwide, there is a lot riding on our ability to sustain a well-equipped workforce. When the STEM crisis first came across our radar in 2010, we thought — “Where do we begin?” 

The answer was one you’ve probably heard before.

Being a leading life science and high technology company whose biochemical, organic chemical products, kits and services are used in scientific research, including genomic and proteomic research, biotechnology, pharmaceutical development, the diagnosis of disease and as key components in pharmaceutical, diagnostics and high technology manufacturing, we decided to start at home – St. Louis, Mo.

Together with other businesses including Ameren, AT&T, Bank of America, Boeing, Emerson, Express Scripts, Mastercard, Monsanto, Peabody Energy and Washington University in St. Louis, we formed science and math teachersSTEMpact, with a focus on improving STEM teacher quality in the St. Louis region. 

We started by doing our homework.  For two and a half years, we have focused on identifying the major STEM issues in our region and have begun formulating a plan to address them. 

From Unprepared Teachers…

This issue isn’t just about the students; it’s also about the teachers. We conducted extensive stakeholder interviews to understand the challenges local teachers face and where they see gaps. 

Reduced funding and restrictive education policies have put many teachers at a disadvantage for teaching STEM. A number of them actually feel unprepared and uncomfortable teaching these subjects.

The 2000 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education, which surveyed a random national sample of more than 650 teachers in grades K-through-five, found that only four percent of the teachers had undergraduate degrees in science or science education. Ninety-two percent had college coursework in life sciences, but only 53 percent had coursework in chemistry and 62 percent in physics or physical science. 

Even more troublesome was the fact that 23 percent did not have any coursework in science education.

As part of our research, we also met with higher education leaders, informal educators at science-based institutions around town including the St. Louis Science Center, the Challenger Learning Center and the St. Louis Zoo to better understand their efforts in STEM education.  After completing our research and developing our strategy, we established a series of goals and initiatives for the next several years designed to improve STEM education in the region.

…to Training the Trainers

Last summer, we held our first-ever STEM Teacher Quality Institute, a two-week long seminar offering teachersa number of professional development courses to more than 65 educators from four local school districts in Missouri and Illinois. The impact of the seminar perhaps is best described by one of the teachers who went through the training: 

“Prior to STEM TQ, I knew what the acronym STEM stood for in words only. I really just thought I’d have to use my computer in teaching more. Now, I understand STEM as integrative, inquiry-based teaching that includes engineering, science, technology and math as a focus. It focused me to think about our children’s future in these areas.”

We plan to host our second Institute this summer and are hoping to double the number of school districts we’re able to reach.  We’re also excited to share the results of the yearlong evaluation later this year that will help validate the results of our project and inform us on ways to further improve and expand our impact.

Our work with the STEMpact group led us to another idea – the concept of Sigma-Aldrich sharing its expertise through its greatest assets – our employees.

Our scientists and other employees, with help from the Institute for School Partnership at Washington University, are partnering to develop a curriculum catalog using the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). They are helping develop lessons to connect industry perspectives and scenarios to the learning environment and will also share STEM studentsthis curriculum with students at local schools or at our Life Science and High Technology Center in St. Louis.

Our scientists will also talk with students about careers and relevant applications of science in their everyday life. We’ll also let students use our lab facilities to do discovery work illustrating firsthand that science is exciting, while reinforcing the importance of integrated STEM learning.

Scaling the Impact of Pro Bono

We are piloting this program at other Sigma-Aldrich sites across the U.S. and are planning to make the program global, creating a Sigma-Aldrich STEM content library that covers multiple scientific disciplines including biology, diagnostics and testing, chemistry, analytical chemistry and materials science. 

What and how students learn today will impact their decisions tomorrow. By providing both students and teachers with the tools they need, we are offering insight into the exciting opportunities STEM careers hold. We are working to equip teachers to inspire today’s youth to become the scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technologists of tomorrow while mobilizing our employees through skills-based volunteering opportunities, which is why we joined A Billion + Change to lend our support to one of the greatest underutilized corporate resources today, people.

About the Author:

Jeffrey will discuss his company’s approach to improving STEM education at the 2013 Conference on Volunteering and Service. To learn more about Sigma-Aldrich’s STEM efforts and its overall Global Citizenship Program, visit www.sialglobalcitizenship.com. You can also follow Jeffrey on Twitter @SAGlobalCitizen_JW as he rolls out more innovative partnerships.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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