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.