Minority students are the future of STEM

January 6

As leaders of Montgomery County life science companies, we have a stake in whether local students like science. If they do, they are more likely to work for companies such as ours. If they don’t, our pipeline of future workers gets slimmer.

So we have taken special note of a science education gap in our region that we believe will have a long-term impact on our minority students, our communities and our businesses.

On the positive front, our region’s science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, economy is booming. The Washington-Baltimore region is the largest “super hub” of STEM jobs in the nation and will grow well into the future. The region’s success means companies like ours are continuously in need of properly trained and motivated students from which to hire tomorrow’s workforce.

Additionally, the minority population in Montgomery County is booming, according to the most recent census. The Latino community is growing at a rate of 64.4 percent, Asians at 37.5 percent and African Americans at 23.5 percent. Ideally, these growing and aspirational populations could help fill our STEM workforce demands for years to come.

Unfortunately, the scientific and technology potential for these students is being left largely untapped. Only 11 percent of Maryland’s African American eighth graders and 18 percent of Hispanic eighth graders are deemed proficient in science, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress.

This must change — for the benefit of these students and, more broadly, for the future of science and technology companies within the region. We need a minority-based youth movement to push Montgomery County and our region forward in STEM education. Our collective challenge is to attract more students to STEM-related subjects through engaging, accessible and innovative platforms that appeal to the youth on their terms. Doing so fosters goodwill with our students, benefits our communities and advances the critical products and technologies that can make a meaningful difference to the health and welfare of the broader population.

Here’s how Montgomery County businesses and philanthropies plan to do it:

Think beyond the classroom. Studies show that when students lose interest in science course work, the problem is often how science is taught — not science itself.

Two local philanthropies are creating a model for helping students see how science can be applied in the real world today and in the future. MdBio Foundation’s MdBioLab — a 40-foot mobile bioscience lab that travels to schools statewide — introduces students to an array of inquiry-based science, ranging from crime scene forensics to disease diagnosis, and demonstrates that science is essential to solving a host of real-world problems. The Hispanic Heritage Foundation offers a video game innovation fellowship, which awards minority youths grants to create video games that offer solutions to problems they face their communities. MdBio Foundation and the Hispanic Heritage Foundation recently hosted an event called Leaders On Fast Track Life Science Career Symposium, where hundreds of minority students from the region came together to listen and learn about STEM careers from young minority professionals, business leaders and elected officials. Clearly, there is a demand, and these youth see an opportunity to take advantage of it.

Recruit and train teachers. Maryland faces a shortage of qualified science teachers, making it harder to show students the power of scientific discovery. In 2009, there were roughly four STEM teacher openings in Maryland for every new STEM teacher we trained. We must improve access to professional development programs and make STEM teaching positions just as appealing as others.

Create better regional partnerships. Our region plays host to world-class federal research labs, such as the National Institutes of Health, as well as respected life science firms. A regional strategy to share the knowledge and career perspectives of these federal scientists and bio-entrepreneurs should be a priority for our K-12 school system. From Gaithersburg to Baltimore, Emergent BioSolutions has facilitated programs to promote student-employee interactions and has “adopted” schools in communities where they operate in hopes of capturing students’ imaginations and inspiring the next generation of scientists to pursue STEM careers.

We need to do more to leverage the talent within Montgomery County to guide our youth in the STEM fields. The investment in minority youth is a value proposition for Montgomery County to serve as a leader in entrepreneurship, innovation, research and STEM job creation. We cannot afford to wait.

Abdun-Nabi is president and chief executive of Emergent BioSolutions in Rockville. Finkelstein is chairman of the MdBio Foundation and president and CEO of RegeneRX Biopharmaceuticals in Rockville. They are both members of MdBio Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides science, technology, engineering and math education for middle and high school students.

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