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Students need businesses to step up, help

By Paul Myers
Special to the Observer

Through no fault of their own, American students continue to underperform in science and math, relative to their peers in countries around the world. According to data released in December 2012 by the National Center for Education Statistics, our students rank an average of 10th in the world in these subject areas.

This decline in excellence poses a serious problem. In today’s business environment, essentially all industry sectors – from the nuclear energy industry to the financial sector and beyond – depend on the skills developed by students of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). According to a June 2012 report by U.S. News and World Report, an estimated three million STEM jobs are currently unfilled. The engineers, scientists, programmers, accountants and technicians of tomorrow need the scientific and mathematic competencies that underpin success.

Now, it is widely recognized that a strong, STEM-focused curriculum and appropriately trained teachers contribute significantly to the improvement of U.S. student performance in such subjects. However, instruction is only part of the equation – students need to be enticed, provided with information, opportunities and experiences that get them excited about scientific subjects, instill the desire to study them and pursue careers in those industries.

How do we get there? Clearly our education systems need some assistance. That leaves room for companies concerned about the long-term implications of U.S. competitiveness to step in and help fill the gap. Corporations must play an active role in investing in educational programs that help students develop and excel in STEM subjects.

Across the nation, corporations often sponsor programs in schools during National Engineers Week in February, hoping to spark a child’s interest in science or math or engineering. But just connecting with a child on a “cool field trip” will not lead to a general resurgence of interest in the sciences. Kids need and deserve more.

To achieve sustainable progress, corporations and industry groups need to invest time and physical capital – year round – in STEM education. At AREVA, we are committing time and resources to this important initiative and we encourage others to do the same. We want kids to connect the dots between education and engineering. We encourage our engineers to visit local schools and mentor kids interested in the sciences. We have programs with local high schools, offering kids real-world engineering experience working at our facilities. We reach out to youth of all ages through programs like “STEMmersion” in Charlotte. At the college level, we have invested people and funds to initiatives such as the new EPIC engineering building at UNC Charlotte. We also invest in programs like the Nuclear Clean Air Energy racing initiative, which enables AREVA-sponsored Indycar driver Simona De Silvestro to engage students in a discussion of the application of engineering, physics and science to the technology behind racing and clean energy.

The country’s future, as well as our clean energy present and future, depend on a robust, talented pool of highly-skilled engineers, technicians and craft labor. Companies that value and depend on STEM talent should feel compelled to invest in initiatives to supplement the instruction students receive in the classroom. By doing so companies and industry groups can help students understand how they can apply science and math skills to solve tough problems and develop exciting solutions.

Companies can take an active role in curriculum development to align STEM education with technical competencies. They can initiate and fund science and engineering summer camps, internships, field trips, teacher training programs and more.

Essentially, it is not enough to believe that our public school systems can take on such a daunting task of preparing our children to excel above and beyond the global competition in areas of science and math by themselves. In fact, it is not even enough to have some corporations “support” or “participate” in STEM education for our future generations in a limited way. Many more need to be involved.

If we want to bring America back to a leadership position in science, technology, engineering and math, corporations and industry groups must take a more active role.

Paul Myers is senior vice president of the Front End Business Group for North America of AREVA, Inc.
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