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On STEM, New Jersey leads the way

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David Hodges, director of the governor’s STEM Scholars Program at the Research & Development Council of New Jersey.
David Hodges, director of the governor’s STEM Scholars Program at the Research & Development Council of New Jersey.

In the nation's debate about how to improve STEM education at the federal level, the key role that states play is sometimes overlooked. This is a shame because it is at the state level where some of the most crucial work is done in preparing students for STEM careers. One state that is taking a particularly innovative approach is New Jersey, which is celebrating its third year of a public-private partnership aimed at bolstering the state's STEM pipeline.

In 2013, the state announced the creation of the Governor’s STEM Scholars program. Founded by the Research and Development Council of New Jersey with the Governor’s office, Secretary of Higher Education, and New Jersey Department of Education, the program provides promising STEM students with a comprehensive introduction to the state’s STEM economy through a series of conferences, field trips, research opportunities, and internships. Funded entirely by private donations, the program works with government to address the state’s STEM needs.

Like the United States as a whole, New Jersey relies heavily on STEM graduates and the STEM industry to make it a prosperous place. From PSEG in the south to BD in the north, New Jersey is a technological powerhouse that employs more STEM workers per capita than any other state. However, despite its primacy in STEM, New Jersey cannot take the future for granted. At the top end, baby boomers are retiring, and on the bottom end, New Jersey exports more college students than any other state (nearly 30,000 students each year).

Looked at from one perspective, this is a daunting task. But from another, it is a great opportunity. One advantage that New Jersey has over other states is what Harvard’s Michael Porter calls the “clusters” that drive competition and economic development. “Clusters,” he writes, “are geographic concentrations of interconnected companies and institutions in a particular field.” And New Jersey is nothing if not a STEM cluster: the Garden State boasts the nation’s highest concentration of scientists, 14 of the world’s largest biopharmaceutical companies, and world-class universities and research institutions.

The Council started the STEM Scholars to capitalize on its advantages so the state could have a coordinated effort among government, industry, and academia to address New Jersey's STEM pipeline needs. In practice, what this means is that talented high school and college students are first chosen through a competitive application process and are then introduced to the state's STEM economy over the academic year. They attend networking seminars, meet STEM professionals, visit the Legislature, and are celebrated through things like a legislative resolution and a gubernatorial proclamation. They visit our state’s top STEM institutions, conduct research funded by our donors, and, if they are college students and alumni, attend intimate meetings with New Jerseyans who changed the world of STEM, like silicon transistor co-inventor Morris Tanenbaum. Finally, when they finish the program, they are part of an alumni network that enables them to stay connected to jobs and opportunities within the state.

This fall, the Governor’s STEM Scholars are kicking off the year at Rutgers University where their opening conference will focus on government and STEM. The scholars will hear from the president of the R&D Council, as well as STEM professionals from the United States Navy, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and New Jersey Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Cell. In addition, they will work in teams on challenging optimization problems at the School of Engineering and see the crucial life-saving work being done at the Keck Center. Following the conference, they will have the opportunity to visit two incredible STEM facilities in our state: the BASF facilities in Union and the ATT Global Network Operations Center in Bedminster. Taken together, these are the first steps the scholars will take toward gaining a greater understanding of the unique role that New Jersey plays in the global STEM economy.

What New Jersey did with the Governor’s STEM Scholars is a model that other states can follow. In the presidential campaign, we hear about fears of jobs going overseas and the decline of manufacturing in our country. While no one state or program can come up with a comprehensive solution to these concerns, what they can do is work together across industry, academia, and government to introduce future STEM professionals to opportunities within their states. If other states want to attract and retain their best and brightest, they would do well to follow the example set by the Garden State.

David Hodges is director of the Governor’s STEM Scholars Program at the Research & Development Council of New Jersey.

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