What Role Do Corporations Play in Supporting STEM Education?

Last week, as part of the Imagine Cup award ceremony, Hal Plotkin, the Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education, praised Microsoft for its commitment to STEM education with its hosting of the global student technology competition. Plotkin encouraged other companies to step up and invest in these sorts of endeavors. As the projects submitted to the Imagine Cup must tackle the UN’s Millennium Goals - poverty, hunger, disease, infant mortality, environmental destruction, and so on - it’s not just good for the U.S. education system, it's good for the world.

Microsoft is not the only corporation involved in promoting STEM education.  Earlier this year, MindShift profiled the Change the Equation non-profit, through which companies like ExxonMobil, Dell and Lockheed Martin have supported science and technology education. Intel says it's spent over $1 billion on education projects. And just last week, Google announced the winners of its first online global science fair, just one of the many programs that the search engine giant has undertaken to help encourage budding scientists, engineers, and programmers.

Corporate sponsorship and funding is seen as necessary to help boost the programs that oftentimes schools can't afford. That seems to be particularly true when it comes to student competitions and science fairs, as these sorts of "extracurricular" projects are often on the chopping block when schools look to streamline their budgets.

But what are the implications of having students engaged in corporate-sponsored science? In the case of both the Imagine Cup and the Google Science Fair, participating students were required to use Microsoft and Google products respectively in their projects. Of course, students don't often have a choice when it comes to the technology they get to use in the classroom. If your school has Windows computers, you use Windows; if your school runs Macs, you use Macs.

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Corporate-sponsored activities aren't anything new in education, and they certainly aren't restricted to science fairs. One need only look at sports to see how marketing and sponsorship "plays out" -- for better or worse.

Technology corporations do have a vested interest in helping support STEM education as it means a good supply of skilled workers in the future. But it's easy to see companies' involvement as marketing efforts -- producing future customers, not just future employees.

How then do schools distinguish STEM-as-marketing from STEM-as education? And do they need to? How do we both welcome and scrutinize these corporate efforts? What are our alternatives?

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One may be the "maker movement," as exemplified by Make magazine and the Maker Faire. The DIY, hands-on exploration encouraged by the maker movement may be just the thing to get kids encouraged in science and technology. Not only does the maker movement encourage creativity and innovation, but it's also breaking down the walls of the schoolroom, making it clear to students that science isn't something that happens in the lab or in the classroom. It can happen in your backyard or in your garage. And it can happen without major investment from big companies.

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