“Math as the Gateway to STEM” Conference
1 – 3 Oct 2012
Introductions & Welcoming Remarks from Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, Superintendent
Good afternoon….on behalf of the entire VMI community, I welcome you most warmly to the Institute and to this conference, the first in a series of three annual conferences on the urgently important topic of student preparedness for careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Conferences held here at the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics support our commitment to an informed outlook on the great issues affecting our nation and the world, and they serve to prepare our cadets for their future roles as citizens, soldiers, and leaders.
This conference was made possible in part through the generosity of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), which enabled VMI to offer grants for teachers and administrators to attend, CISCO Systems, whose generous assistance is allowing us to videotape all of the conference sessions, and the City of Norfolk, which provided much needed assistance to twelve schools in the form of funds to pay for substitute teachers.
The theme of this Conference is “Mathematics as the Gateway to STEM Success.” Our focus over these next three days is on math…, and given the current level of focus at the national and state levels on education reform, we believe the conversation that begins here this week can serve as a platform for a much-needed larger discussion.
Clearly the issue of student preparedness in science and math is one of economic and national security. The statistics are alarming. Despite chronic high unemployment, in May of this year the Manpower Group released the results of its seventh annual Talent Shortage Survey. Alarmingly, the results indicate that forty-nine percent of all employers in the United States are having a hard time filling mission-critical positions. The thirteen hundred U.S. employers who were surveyed reported difficulty filling jobs in the skilled trades, jobs for scientists and engineers, and positions on their information technology staffs. Of concern is the fact that each of these categories has remained on the list since 2006.
In June of this year the New York Times reported extensively on the problem. Among the many examples was a report from Drew Greenblatt, the owner of a Baltimore company that manufactures high-quality sheet metal products for large companies including Pfizer, Caterpillar and Toyota. Mr. Greenblatt’s company exports their steel products to thirty-six countries including China, Australia, & Japan. Thirty percent of the company’s employees are mechanical engineers. Determined to be more competitive, offset vacancies, and win back jobs from China, the firm invested in robots to do some of the work. He reported to the New York Times that his company couldn’t find enough qualified people to run the machines for all shifts. As a result the machines sit idle for seventy hours a week, a tragedy in these hard economic times. What does Mr. Greenblatt need in the way of qualified employees to fill five openings for machine operators? Not even a college degree. He just needs people with the ability to operate a computer, read a blueprint, and use a caliper. These positions pay on average about sixty thousand dollars per year.
In another case, the chief executive of a web design and marketing company in New York reported that twelve percent of all the jobs in his company were vacant. The reason: the company could not find enough highly qualified people with technical backgrounds as web designers and online marketing specialists. As a result, he resorted to hiring freelance contractors, many of whom were located offshore-outside the United States.
The problem is serious…, many now predict it will ultimately affect the U.S. military and thus a national security issue. While employers in the private sector are increasingly sending their engineering work off-shore, that option is simply not possible for the military. Most Department of Defense STEM jobs require security clearances and these can only be given to U.S. citizens. As the STEM pool shrinks, almost half of all recent STEM college graduates in our country are now foreign born. Regardless of their qualifications, excitement, patriotism or enthusiasm, most are not eligible for the security clearances they need to perform this work. Georgetown University’s Director of the Center on Education and the Workforce has predicted that the military will face the same struggles as private firms when it comes to recruiting highly-skilled workers. There just aren’t enough workers with the required military engineering, science, or high technology related skills…as demand continues to outstrip supply.
It is no secret to anyone in this room that this national problem cannot be solved (simply) by convincing college matriculating students to suddenly major in the STEM disciplines. That is far too late. The early preparation must take place in the K thru 12 classroom. It’s about the reality of the raw material that walks into your classrooms…, many of whom are well-rested, well-fed, eager and enthusiastic about learning. But, regretfully, it is also the harsher reality that many children, those without the desired family structure, arrive at school hungry and tired, not sure where their books are, failing in homework preparation, and unaware of the importance of a sound education for their future. It’s also about basic foundations, facilities, and ensuring that our teachers have all they need to get the job done…, and that the right teachers with the right qualifications are hired and retained.
We can truly impact this national issue…you and me. If you look around, you will see nearly six hundred people, all of whom share this underlying concern and focus. Among you are over two hundred and fifty elementary and middle school teachers and administrators, …and over one hundred and fifty high school students, teachers and administrators. There are representatives of the private sector, VMI faculty and cadets, and high school students. You all share in this noble goal…to engage in a conversation that paves the way for solutions, to share your experiences about things that work in the classroom and things that don’t. Many of you are excited about the prospects for on-line learning; many of you are concerned that your school doesn’t have the basic connectivity to embrace that future. And, many of you, while believing it may be cost effective, doubt that that approach is the correct one.
One of the fundamental focus areas at VMI (of which we are proud) is the gift of mentorship, a bedrock of the VMI experience, and validated by research… that demonstrates that the most successful and permanent learning comes from “hands on experience” under the caring and watchful eye of a mentor. Tomorrow some three dozen high school students will join VMI faculty and cadets to engage in hands-on learning. They will experience real projects on such topics as robotic jellyfish, 3-D printing, fractals, wave-making, kidney transplants, the fourth dimension, and more. We hope these experiences create some long-term friendships…, but at a minimum we hope that these experiences open doors that would otherwise be closed and perhaps even create a spark that ignites interest in careers most desperately needed by our nation…, those in science, technology, engineering and math.
In your program you will find a rich array of speakers, panels, workshops, and experts who have come together to help us solve America’s toughest math problem. Among our presenters, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, whom we have watched on television describe some of the most complex phenomena in the universe, will share his own experiences with you. Sal Khan, the founder of the world famous Khan Academy, will be here to talk about his free online education platform and not-for-profit organization, one that was sparked by his own efforts to help his nieces and nephews with their homework through home-grown tutorial videos that he made in his living room. Mr. John Luke, Chairman and CEO of Med Westvaco has a long career in manufacturing and understands from experience at the cutting edge the need for correct public policy to make us more competitive…and Dr. Cathy Seeley and Dr. Patricia Wright are steeped in mathematics from the classroom to the state and national levels.
Thank you for coming to VMI. I hope this conference will be all that you expect, and that you will enjoy your time here – both at the Institute and in historic Lexington. May your experiences this year prompt you to join us next year for a second conference that we hope some of you will help us design, as together we assemble the building blocks that will chart the way toward a successful future. While visiting the VMI Post please don’t hesitate to talk to our cadets and faculty as well as the staff of the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics. We are pleased to have you with us and want to ensure you have a very productive and enjoyable experience.
It now gives me great pleasure to introduce our first speaker, The Honorable Laura Fornash, Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Ms. Fornash was appointed by Governor McDonnell on 23 August 2011. In this key position she assists the Governor in developing and implementing the state’s education policy, provides guidance to the state’s sixteen public universities, the Virginia Community Colleges, five higher education and research centers, the Department of Education and the state-supported museums. She serves as the Executive Director of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education Reform, Innovation, and Investment. Before joining the McDonnell administration, Secretary Fornash spent 20 years with Virginia Tech in a number of different divisions including student affairs, continuing education, distance learning, and government relations. As the Virginia Tech Restructuring Project Director, she had responsibility for creating new levels of autonomy …a program established for public higher education institutions to meet key academic performance measures. As Director of the Virginia Tech Richmond Center, she ensured that credit and noncredit programs were offered to working professionals…and, as the Director of Information Technology Programs, she launched an innovative web based interdisciplinary master’s degree program that helped transition professionals into the information technology field. Secretary Fornash received her undergraduate and master’s degree from Virginia Tech. She is a native of Chesterfield, Virginia and is a graduate of Virginia public schools. We are grateful she could take time out of her busy schedule to be with us today. Please join me in welcoming a close friend…the Commonwealth’s Secretary of Education, The Honorable Laura Fornash.