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Can Corporate Funding Boost STEM Education?

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By Sara Bernard

Last fall, the Obama Administration launched Change the Equation, a nonprofit that matches funds from corporations to programs that promote science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Through Change the Equation, corporations like ExxonMobil, Dell Computers and Lockheed Martin, for example, have invested in a program that funds advanced placement classes in math and science; Google, Intel, and Cisco, among other companies, funded a program that teaches engineering to K-5 public schools.

Five CEOs of major conglomerates -- including Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt and Sally Ride Science CEO Sally Ride -- helped launch the coalition, which, in the past six months has grown to 110 member companies. Each company pledges to support Change the Equation's three goals (including inspiring students in STEM fields, particularly girls and students of color), and to commit to the organization for three years with at a $25,000-per-year donation.

I talked to CEO Linda Rosen, a former high school math teacher and former executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, who addressed the reasoning behind this kind of model for corporate involvement in public education -- and the importance of STEM education right now.


Q: Why is the Change the Equation model important?

A: We've been trying this kind of reform [in STEM education] for many years. I would say that our progress in general across the nation is not commensurate with our efforts. And the business community does occupy a bully pulpit. If this community is properly used and shaped, I think it has the potential to jump start progress in a number of ways. That's why I'm excited. That's what made me come and work here.

I think we are the first organization of its kind, so we're going to get some things right and some things not so right. The Business Roundtable at both the state and national level generally has education task forces; a few are focused on STEM, but most are not. I think the laser focus on STEM that Change the Equation has is unique.

Q: Why do these companies choose to get involved?

A: Many of our companies are already quite invested in STEM philanthropy. There are some who've joined who are looking for advice on starting a program, or some who've been in it, but want to reconsider their portfolio. This organization gives them an opportunity to look at what they've been doing with fresh eyes. Most of the companies invest in philanthropic programs that someone else has created -- 70 percent of member companies invest in First Robotics, for example -- but there are a small number of companies who create their own programs, too. There's no value judgment there. What we're most interested in is helping our companies invest wisely.

Q: How do you do that?

A: In a variety of ways. At our launch last September, we brought seven programs to the attention of our members, [suggesting] these are the kinds of high-quality programs you might want to think about. Of course, we are not in any way trying to suggest we're going to find all the good programs. We're just trying to educate our membership by providing information about some good programs.

Q: What would you say to those skeptical about corporate funding of public education programs?

A: I'd say that their dollars are going towards programs that have proven effectiveness. You can't argue with that. Many companies also spend dollars to support their employees' engagement in pre-K-12 education. If an employee is working with a science club every month or week, and they're still getting their salary, that's a big contribution toward a school.

You sometimes hear people say, "The business community doesn't understand public education, they don't understand that kids come to school with no breakfast, that sometimes there are no desks..." and so on. I think Change the Equation offers the education and business communities a way of having an effective conversation. We're trying to come up with guidelines so that teachers and STEM professionals can work together to plan lessons and opportunities for kids.

But to do that, we've got to clean house, find what works, scale up what works, and clean away the other clutter.  We've got to set goals that measure our progress toward those goals, and if it's not as fast or as widespread as we want, we have to figure out how we can redouble our efforts.

Q: Why the emphasis on STEM education?

A: We're not trying to make everyone into an engineer or an astronaut. Change the Equation is not in this for its own workforce. Of course there are those obvious careers in STEM fields, but we're also interested in "STEM-capable" careers -- which in today's world is just about everything else.

To be a fashion designer, you have to use CAD software; to be an acoustical engineer with a rock band, you have to know the science and the physics to do that. There is even some evidence that when a home health care aid -- one of the fastest-growing professions today -- has more scientific knowledge, he or she is better able to interpret doctors' orders, understand dosage, and basically be a better-informed consumer.

We know that a functioning democracy needs citizens who can reason numerically and scientifically. People have to look at the global warming debate with some lens of scientific understanding; they have to see the health care debate with some grasp of the statistics of the dollars involved. Our democracy demands that all students achieve this form of literacy. A literate nation not only reads, but calculates, analyzes, and innovates.

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