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Growing roots for more STEM

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Local technology companies, concerned by a growing pool of jobs and an inadequate number of qualified employees, have increasingly focused on initiatives to improve what they call STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The focus is partly out of necessity. Many companies, such as defense contractors who need employees with security clearances, simply can’t find enough people to fill their jobs.

Many are beginning to broaden their approach from a focus on university programs and newly minted graduates.

“Companies have been diversifying their investments,” from looking beyond college students to kids in middle and high schools, said James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, whose membership includes associations and businesses. “To the extent that you’re really trying to look at the big picture ... [companies are betting] that if we make the pipeline stronger there, it will have ripple effects upwards.”

There are multiple ways to address STEM education; here is a look at how local businesses are spending their time and dollars:

Making it fun for kids

Many companies see middle school as a turning point, the last chance to interest students in math, science and technology before they opt to focus on other subjects.

“For girls and for students of color, by middle school if they are not excited about math and science, they tend to start dropping out” of those classes, said Sandra J. Evers-Manly, Northrop Grumman’s vice president of corporate responsibility and president of the Northrop Grumman Foundation.

Northrop has targeted its giving at several programs for the age group, such as backing the Sally Ride Science Festivals for girls in 5th through 8th grade.

Getting students excited often means looking outside the classroom. Northrop also sponsors FIRST robotics competitions, designed to feel more like sporting events than academic events.

Team members often dress in costumes and build robots to play games against each other, said Lynn Gilmore, director of corporate citizenship for Northrop’s information systems business.

Northrop funds individual teams as well as regional tournaments, and company employees act as mentors to teams and staff the tournaments.

Northrop’s target is to donate about 50 percent of its charitable giving to STEM. In 2011, its total giving — which includes all charitable giving by the company and its foundation — totaled about $28.2 million, and a spokeswoman said more than half went to STEM initiatives.

Northrop is hardly alone. This summer, BAE Systems plans to host a month-long program in Reston meant to introduce at-risk high-schoolers to the kind of geospatial technology BAE has created to help the military and intelligence agencies see information on maps.

The idea, said Josh K. Weerasinghe, vice president for global market development in BAE’s intelligence and security unit, is to move students “over this hurdle from an interest to something that’s very real, that makes them look at college as really a positive alternative.

“If we can get them through that [high school to college] bottleneck ... we hope that we can then be more successful in getting them out of the college pipeline into industry,” he said.

Kids in the classroom

Sterling-based Neustar, which manages the phone number and Internet address databases that help route telecommunications traffic worldwide, devotes all of its giving to STEM programs.

Instead of spreading money “all over the landscape in amounts that really would not be a big impact, we decided to focus all of our charitable giving only on STEM and to really, really push it hard,” said president and chief executive Lisa A. Hook, who declined to disclose the amount.

Neustar is focusing some of its efforts on what’s happening in the classroom, establishing a digital literacy program that is now in public and private schools in Virginia and Kentucky.

Neustar pays for the program while District-basec education technology company EverFi trains teachers on how to teach it and tracks how many students complete the work.

The curriculum covers a range of topics for teens interested in the Internet, from how to create a blog to how to evaluate online research sources, as well as privacy and security issues.

Northrop Grumman, too, has tried to improve in-school curriculums, including starting Eco Classroom, a program that sends teachers to Costa Rica for two weeks in the field collecting biodiversity and climate data.

The program, which was announced in January and last week named its inaugural class of 16 teachers, including four from Anne Arundel County, is meant to inspire teachers and provide an experience they can use to excite their own students in the classroom.

Paying for school

Not all STEM initiatives begin and end at the K-12 level. When McLean-based Iridium — along with other company partners — launched its first satellite network in the late 1990s, Matthew J. Desch, now chief executive, recalls that the sophistication of the technology was a motivator within the industry.

“This was transformative in their careers, it was an inspiration to them,” he said of the program’s employees.

As Iridium prepares to launch its next network of satellites, the company is hoping to recapture that excitement, establishing — along with partners such as SpaceX, Orbital Sciences and Lockheed Martin — a $250,000 endowment meant to support young aerospace engineers and distribute awards to undergraduates beginning in the 2012-2013 academic year.

While there’s always the possibility some recipients might become Iridium employees, Desch said the program is targeted at broadly improving the industry’s pool.

Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin has given more than $1.1 million in grants to organizations that provide STEM-related scholarships over the past two years, said Emily Simone, director of the company’s global community outreach. Lockheed annually gives about $13 million to STEM initiatives, she said.

Some of the grants go to elementary, middle and high schools that need funding for curriculum or robotics programs, while some of it goes to colleges to provide scholarships for their students, said Simone.

“We want to make sure that if a youth is interested in STEM that a lack of resources doesn’t get in the way,” she added.

Trying to hire

For companies with bottom lines and shareholders to worry about, long-term STEM initiatives can prove daunting. Even programs that successfully drive more students into math and science won’t necessarily provide direct return on investment to any given company.

Some firms are mixing long-term approaches with nearer-term ones. Neustar, for instance, has a program meant to get low-income young adults into technology education, through which it last year hired two of five interns, according to Hook.

“Frankly, it’s very selfish,” Hook said of the company’s investment in STEM.

“We’re a company that is constantly searching for qualified candidates, and we know ... the [U.S.] education system as it is now is not going to graduate enough people to fill the kind of jobs that we have,” she said.

Companies have to take the long view, she added.

McLean-based Science Applications International Corp. has an internship program that attracts roughly 300 college students each summer. More than one-third become permanent employees.

“When we hire interns, we’re not looking for summer hires, we’re not looking for temporary bodies to fill jobs,” said Amy E. Alving, SAIC’s chief technology officer.

The company set up its internship program four to five years ago, said Alving, several years before it set up STEM initiatives geared at students in elementary, middle and high schools.

The older students provide “the nearer-term business impact,” she said. But “both for good citizenship reasons and for self-interest, it’s important that there be a pool of students behind those college students.”

Measuring results

According to Brown, corporate-level interest in STEM remains a relatively new — less than a decade old — trend, meaning that it’s too soon to judge how successful the efforts have been.

“The jury is still out on what works,” Brown said. “You have data on cohorts of 20 or 100 students, but it’s really sparse when you start talking about larger-scale innovations.”

Still, at Chantilly High School, engineering teacher Marty Rothwell, who sponsors the school’s robotics club, said he sees club members’ experiences influence their college and career choices.

One female student called her father from a robotics tournament to tell him she had found what she wanted to do, Rothwell recalled. He said she later went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“You come into the club, and you find your niche,” Rothwell said. “You might find that you like programming, or you might find that you like mechanical or you might find that you like electrical” engineering.

Brown acknowledged companies accustomed to demanding return on investment can be frustrated by the difficulty in tracking STEM success. But as spending continues to increase and time goes by, he said he expects more data to be available and more companies to look to proven programs.

“The pressure is now on showing results,” Brown said. “The philanthropy’s going to follow the results.”

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