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What it takes to transform Southeast Michigan into a STEM Hub

Dr. Tonya Matthews


The resurgence of Michigan has been linked to our legacy as pioneers and innovators in engineering, manufacturing, and good old fashioned American tinkering. STEM (the hot new acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math) is in our blood. Standing in downtown Detroit, I see the impact of our deeds -- everything from catalytic converter reinvention to carp invasion mitigation to cardiac care innovation -- without even turning my head.
 
Still, in the glut of best places for STEM lists and rankings, it's hard to find Michigan communities in the top quartile. There's a message in that: Celebrating how much we've done must not distract from acknowledging how much there is to do. Besides, the "to do" list is what inspires people who choose STEM.
 
Turning Southeast Michigan into a "STEM Hub" is an awfully grandiose thought, but one worthy of consideration. Research shows that communities with solid STEM economies trend lower unemployment rates, higher average incomes, and faster growth than their counterparts. What would it take for us to become a STEM Hub?
 
Let's define a "hub" as an environment where a thing of interest (in this case STEM) creates a positive feedback loop -- producing, protecting, resourcing, consuming which amplifies the producing, protecting, resourcing, consuming -- of your "thing of interest." Let's nominate Change the Equation as our arbiter of STEM statistics and the Brookings Institute Report "The Hidden Economy of STEM" as our list broker for this conversation.
 
Lastly, in this so-called hub, what do I mean when I say STEM?
 
According to the Brookings report, "A STEM job is any job that requires specialized knowledge in science, technology, engineering or math." This oversimplified definition of STEM is appropriate for calls to action; however, similar sound bite definitions of STEM over the past two decades are why we now find ourselves in the midst of "crisis language" about STEM fields, STEM jobs, and the lack of student interest in and preparedness for STEM.
 
(Here I beg my English teachers' forgiveness as I define the object of my thesis halfway through my essay. But frankly, I'm well within my rights to claim a bit of artistic license. That's right: I'm an engineer and I want artistic license. STEM is not left-brain exclusive...but that is another topic for another time.)
 
STEM is an integrated dance between all subjects and activities that touch science, technology, engineering and math with a built-in understanding that none of these disciplines stands well alone -- in the real world or in the classroom. Not to mention, they are often dull and potentially useless in isolation.
 
So if we pool the stats and rankings, along with our working definitions of a hub and STEM, where do Southeast Michigan's STEM Hub aspirations stand?
 
Here's what we know:
 
The Good: In little more than a decade, there has been strong STEM job market growth in key regions across the state, including a rise to 20 percent market share in the Grand Rapids region and 22 percent in greater Detroit (higher than the national average). Approximately, 20 percent of Michigan's economy is now supported by STEM jobs – on par with the national average.
 
The Bad: During that same period, the number of STEM degrees and certificates earned by students in Michigan increased by 63 percent, accounting for 17 percent of all awarded. While the increase is impressive, these numbers show that the growth in STEM industries is outpacing the growth in STEM students coming into the workforce.
 
The Ugly: Nationally, 8th grade students are gaining ground in math, but Michigan students are stagnating and still not rated as proficient. Ohio is scoring higher than Michigan. If it doesn't work for football, it shouldn't work for math. Enough said.
 
The Promising: Michigan recently raised its science proficiency score level for 8th graders, is loudly grappling with statewide math and science standards, and is vetting the concept of college-readiness as the high school graduation standard. This all bodes well because, combining the degreed and non-degreed STEM economy needs, there are currently 1.1 STEM jobs available for every STEM job seeker.
 
These numbers are good bones to build upon for the heavy lifting ahead – but they don't address the human factor. Our challenge remains that while 17 percent of our students (our future workforce) are opting into STEM, 83 percent are opting out.
 
The human factor requires a re-casting of the mythology of STEM from unattainable realm of the geek and genius to preferred choice of the persistent and creative. We can do this by framing our STEM Hub campaign along the axes of exposure, identity, and impact.
 
Exposure is the proactive axis. When we expose students to STEM in their everyday lives and within their everyday reach, we de-isolate STEM subjects and put them in an accessible context. Emphasizing hands-on learning, problem-based approaches, and cool competitions are a first step, but we need to aggressively emphasize real world connections and careers. The next time we dissect the pig, we should mention the surgeons, endocrinologists, MRI code writers and med-techs "involved." We need a core practice of exposing STEM - through the architects, nurses, engineers, chemists, designers, inventors, techpreneurs, etc - at work every day.
 
Identity is the practical axis. We must be better prepared to view STEM through the lenses of multiple identities. As the acronym has acquired more notice, and more funding, there has been a growing outcry for expansion... STEAM, STREAM, STEMM, STEEM, etc. Similarly, there are numerous initiatives targeting groups left off the rolls -- from girls to African Americans to Latinos to low-income and first generation students. On top of all of that, STEM professionals in fields implied, but not "spelled out," are jockeying for overt recognition, actively disowning the movement, or just plain missing their connection to the conversation.
 
If confident, self-fulfilled adults are disengaging from the conversation because they don't see themselves as part of it, what do you think the stance of the average 8th grader will be if the examples of STEM presented don't look anything like themselves or their world? The stance will be an 83 percent opt out rate.
 
We must rise to challenge of living beyond a "single story." Deliberately, consistently broadening the "face" of STEM means conceding that no single example, educational approach, or rejiggered acronym is the silver bullet. After all, we STEMsters are here to innovate, invent, shift, explore new frontiers and  boldly going where no one has gone before -- and we can't do that within the boundaries of limited identity crises.
 
So we get proactive and expose students to STEM careers. Then we get practical, owning the challenge of expanding the identity of STEM so students see themselves, their interests, and their pathway to careers. But how do we leverage all that into students choosing these careers?
 
Ah. Choice. Not every talented and STEM-capable student chooses a STEM career. The first two axes expand the roster of the capable, but do not necessarily motivate the choice.
 
Hence, the third axis -- impact -- is our axis of power. The young and talented aspire to change the world by righting a wrong, fixing a problem, or discovering a cure. That is what STEM professionals do. Yet we have spent a generation talking about our work in terms of skill sets and test scores. At least we have begun to talk about STEM in terms of excitement and creativity, but we do not talk about our work in terms of impact. We need to emphasize the ways STEM has changed the world as the reason to choose these careers. We can talk about STEM jobs as the careers that people who want to make a difference choose. When we do, STEM careers will become the careers of choice.
 
If we start that conversation early enough, we will not only meet the demand for STEM professionals, but as STEMsters enter the workforce and generate innovation and new industry, we will also increase the demand, and our STEM Hub will have achieved its purpose as a self-renewing loop.

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This is the first piece in a series of features on the importance of transforming Southeast Michigan into a STEM hub. It is supported by the Michigan Science Center.

Dr. Tonya Matthews, President and CEO of the Michigan Science Center, is a proud STEMinista who likes numbers, people, and communities because of the stories they have to tell.
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