Can Corporations Help 'Market' Science to Students?

It may take a coalition of top CEOs to promote hard-to-sell subjects like math and engineering.


There's no shortage of news stories talking about how far behind the United States has fallen when it comes to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in public schools. There have been a few shining moments, including improved scores on national exams tracking math and science knowledge. But even with those modest gains, we're told, the nation as a whole is lagging in the race to be globally competitive.

Enter Change the Equation, a coalition of CEOs from more than 100 top companies. They teamed up after realizing that the efforts they were already making to support public schools weren't doing enough. I had the opportunity to speak with CEq's own CEO, Dr. Linda Rosen, and she was candid about the challenges ahead.

The CEOs that signed on to the coalition are concerned about more than just their own workforce development, Rosen said. "They're trying to ensure every young person has a strong mastery of STEM so they don't have certain career opportunities closed off to them," she said.

Part of the issue is making sure there is high-quality learning going on in classrooms, and well-aligned assessments to measure progress so that instruction can be adjusted as necessary. Last month, Change the Equation put out a remarkable report demonstrating just how much variation there is among states when it comes to science standards.

Another element of boosting STEM education is piquing student interest, particularly in the higher-level classes that require more effort. When it comes to that issue, "we've definitely got a bit of a marketing issue on our hands," Rosen said.

In December Change the Equation, along with the Intel Corporation, released a survey of students ages 13-18. The results indicated that most young people "don't always know what it means to be an engineer, or what an engineer does," Rosen said.

For example, 44 percent of them said they would have had greater interest in engineering as a career if they had known that it was engineers who were behind the rescue of Chilean miners in 2010. This disconnect is of even greater significance for girls "who are drawn to jobs that are somehow helping humanity," Rosen said. "Certainly many jobs in science offer the same thing. There's no question these jobs are hard, but they are infinitely rewarding."

One of Change the Equation's early funders is the Carnegie Corporation, which has made it a mission to add 100,000 high-quality STEM teachers to public schools in the next 10 years. (You can read my previous post on this issue here.) Change the Equation is using $1.5 million from Carnegie over the next three years, combined with donations from private partners, to bring successful STEM programs to scale in underserved schools.

The key word might well be synergy.

CEq's companies have already donated "well north" of a half-billion dollars in philanthropy, but "the needle hasn't really moved as a result of their investment," Rosen said. "Change the Equation members recognize that they need to be more strategic in their philanthropy, collaborate more and advocate more as a chorus -- not in solo arias -- to increase their impact."

This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.