Shaping the Future of STEM

Panelists discussed ways to attract students to STEM topics. (Photo: Eric Hamburg)

When children think of becoming athletes they think of glory, sponsorships, and fame. When they think of STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — they envision difficult equations, confusing lectures, and endless study sessions, according to Dr. Wanda Austin, president and CEO.

Austin turned this quandary into a call for action, citing a need to change the conversation on STEM and develop a more insightful dialogue for STEM education.

She invited aerospace industry leaders, STEM nonprofit organizations, educators, and a small group of Aerospace employees to take part in this important conversation about STEM on Wednesday evening, Aug. 26, in Titan IVA and IVB.

“Inspiring the Next Generation – Shaping the Future of STEM” was Austin’s third signature event since 2009, and it also shared the spotlight with the Aerospace Women’s Committee’s Women’s Week.

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Dr. Wanda Austin, right, with Air Force Academy cadet Yohance Salimu and his mother, Tabia Salimu. (Photo: Eric Hamburg)

This multifaceted event focused on a panel discussion with STEM industry experts, a keynote address by Austin, and an inspirational talk by a U.S Air Force Academy Cadet First Class Yohance Salimu. Guests were also afforded time to network with others and see STEM project demonstrations by Aerospace engineers and scientists.

Salimu shared his poignant story about growing up in and out of a shelter with his younger brother and mother after his family lost their housing. He was in eighth grade, his father was out of the picture, and he faced many challenges at home. He became the captain of the football team, track team, chess club, and any other event that kept him busy and away from home.

He was pulled into a robotics team by Dr. Sean Ramsey, his mentor from Crenshaw High School, who encouraged him to stay close to his brother in order to be a positive influence in his brother’s life. Salimu became interested in science and math and his brother followed him in this pursuit, including the robotics competitions. While at one of the competitions, an Aerospace employee was impressed with his work and offered him an internship at the company.

He was in awe that he was given a paycheck for his work and he was able to support his family.
“We are so grateful for the STEM education that we received,” he said including his brother as well. “It has really impacted our lives.”

Salimu’s mother and Ramsey were in the audience at Wednesday’s event to support him.

The panel discussion and Q and A session that followed was led by Val Zavala, vice president of News and Public Affairs, KCET. The panel comprised three guests: Dr. Karen Symms Gallagher, dean of the Rossier School of Education, USC; Christopher Roe, president and CEO of the California STEM Learning Network; and Lilly Kam, STEM director, i.am.angel Foundation.

Dr. David Gorney, left, with Allison Wolfe of the Disney Junior cable network. (Photo: Elisa Haber)

Dr. David Gorney, left, with Allison Wolfe of the Disney Junior cable network. (Photo: Elisa Haber)

Each guest discussed how their organization supports STEM efforts through programs or standards — Math for America, USC Hybrid High, The California STEM Learning Network, Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, the creation of wearable technology, and many more efforts.

So what can we do to keep kids interested in STEM, Zavala asked? Although research shows that all children are initially interested in these topics, this interest drops off before high school and quite sooner than that in many cases. How do we grab their attention and keep it?

The answer by the panelists was to create real-life events to inspire them. Roe suggested the topics of the current drought in California and human longevity; Gallagher suggested interesting students in the environment, climate change, and inspiring inquiry into the arts; and Kam went straight to where kids are living today – their mobile phones.

She explained that a lot of children are writing four-page essays on their phones because they do not have access to computers. She likes to encourage app development and students need coding skills in order to do this.

The entertainment industry also interests its younger audience with shows like CSI and Mr. Robot showing technology in a very exciting way. Teachers can build on this interest, one panelist offered.

Sometimes what seems like a complex issue can also have a simple answer. Each panelist said that we can all make a vital contribution by becoming a mentor and encouraging our colleagues to become mentors, as well. Take time out to share some expertise that you possess; create a personal connection; take an interest in what students need, they advised.

Austin brought the event home by announcing the establishment of The Aerospace Corporation STEM endowment fund. The goal of this fund is to support the next generation of students in their pursuit of a college degree in STEM disciplines with an emphasis on helping underrepresented students with need, according to Austin.

“It will allow us to raise funds through charitable donations that can be applied to scholarships and other programs to benefit STEM students.”

“We realize that the future of our company, and our society, rests in the hands of the next generation of engineers and scientists, she said. “It is essential that our students have the resources and access that they need to excel in STEM. By gathering together tonight, to discuss our ideas and solutions, I know that we are taking a significant step in the right direction.

—Gail Kellner