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Jeff Raikes: Foundations of Science

March 2, 2010
Prepared Remarks by Jeff Raikes, Chief Executive Officer

Thank you for a very nice introduction. I am grateful to the Pacific Science Center for inviting me to speak to you this morning.

One of the reasons I like coming to Seattle Center is to keep an eye on the construction across the street. We are very excited to move into our new campus next Spring. Bill, Melinda, and Bill Sr. always say that even though their work takes them to the furthest corners of the earth, it starts with the values they learned at home. That’s why they insisted on building a headquarters in the heart of Seattle.

The Gates Foundation has committed more than $3 billion to organizations located in Washington state. More than $530 million of that has gone to help people right here in our community.

People are almost always surprised by that last figure. We get a lot of attention for our work in global health and development, and I think it sometimes overshadows the investments we make at home.

Every single one of our projects—no matter where it’s located—originates from the same idea: that everyone deserves the chance at a healthy and productive life. The least prepared first grader deserves it just as much as the most prepared. The poorest children in the poorest countries deserve is just as much as your children, or mine. Bill and Melinda created the foundation because they wanted to do their part to make these principles a reality.

In the United States, we invest in education because we believe it is the key to opportunity. A good education paves the way for a rewarding career and a more rewarding life. A mediocre education stands in the way.

And one of the most powerful reform movements in education today is the STEM movement, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. At the Gates Foundation, STEM is an important complement to our College Ready strategy that stresses teacher effectiveness.

The STEM movement is an urgent priority for two reasons: First, it can resurrect the democratic promise of our school system—that it prepares all young people to succeed. And second, STEM can resurrect the spirit of innovation and economic vitality that has been so important to our prosperity for more than a century.

First, resurrecting our democratic promise.

We project that—every single year—there will be 1 million openings for high-paying STEM jobs that require some college. The STEM fields are where the opportunities of the future will lie.

But today, our education system simply isn’t giving students the skills they need to seize those opportunities.

Let’s take a close look at the numbers.

In a typical year, more than 4 million students start the ninth grade. Four years later, fewer than 3 million graduate.

Of those 3 million high school graduates, fewer than 1.5 million are prepared for college.

So, to review, we started with 4 million, and we’re down to 1.5 million by the time college starts.

Out of that group, less than a quarter declares a major in a STEM field, so that takes us to about 300,000.

And just over half of the 300,000 get a degree on time.

What started as more than 4 million 14-year-olds ends up as fewer than 200,000 STEM graduates. Fewer than 10 percent of those are black or Latino students, which tells me that instead of making social divisions better, our schools are part of a system that is making them worse. A vigorous STEM movement can reverse that trend.

The second reason we’re interested in STEM is that can resurrect our spirit of innovation and economic vitality.

Remember that we project 1 million STEM job openings annually, so we’re looking at a shortfall of 800,000. And the negative economic impact of those unfilled jobs is immeasurable. That’s because those are the jobs responsible for innovation, and innovation has always been the key to our economic fortunes.

And it’s not just the number of degrees. It’s the skills of the students getting the degrees. A few years ago, students in 30 nations participated in something called the Program for International Assessment. We finished 16 out of 30 in science literacy and 23 out of 30 in math literacy.

Those numbers are scary.

The raw material of American excellence—that relentless drive for innovation—is running low. Our schools are no longer producing it. We need the STEM movement if we hope to write a different story about our future.

The problem is especially stark here in Washington state. Demand for innovation is high: we rank fourth among states in the number of high-tech companies. But supply is, frankly, abysmal: we rank forty-sixth in the number of STEM graduates.

Right now, in the midst of a historic recession, there is a gap of at least 12,000 jobs in STEM fields in Washington. Double-digit unemployment, yet STEM industries have to look overseas for workers.

The state of Washington’s response to this crisis has been shockingly inadequate. You may have heard about some of the things the Obama Administration is doing to encourage innovation in education. This state is well behind on every measure. I’m talking about basic things like putting rigorous standards in place and using the data we have to measure how teachers are performing.

The STEM movement is an important part of the solution. STEM does a lot more than provide a little extra help to students in science and math courses. It’s much broader than making sure everyone stays on top of stoichiometry and the FOIL method.

STEM brings new players into the education sector, and it brings a new kind of pedagogy into the classroom.

Let me give you one of my favorite examples. MC-Squared, a high school in Columbus, Ohio, is located at the headquarters of General Electric’s Lighting Division. Just like the GE employees, the students at MC-Squared work year-round, and until 5 o’clock in the evening. You can’t tell who’s a research scientist and who’s a teacher. You can’t distinguish between a student and an intern. That’s because the scientists are the teachers, and the students are the interns.

MC-Squared is home to one of the fewer-than-50 fabrication labs, or fab labs, in the entire world. A fab lab’s computers run design software connected to cutting-edge production machinery—things like laser-powered etchers and robotic routers. One person called fab labs “technological sandboxes.”

Students at MC-Squared have used the fab lab to make their own solar-powered phone chargers. And that process is coupled with social science and humanities lessons about global energy policy and the history of energy consumption.

It’s the epitome of a hands-on curriculum. Students learn by doing. They learn that they can be bold about their talent—and audacious about what they plan to do with it. They learn to be the innovators this country needs. In short, the STEM movement resurrects a more ambitious concept of what public schooling is supposed to be about.

I’ve been using the word resurrect intentionally. Because the connection between STEM education and resurrection is personal for me.

I’ve loved science for as long as I can remember. My dad was trained as a chemical engineer, and he brought a STEM outlook to running our family farm in Nebraska. He always said that his training in engineering helped save our family farm during the Great Depression. My mother was a high school chemistry teacher and, later in her career, a junior high science teacher.

Alice Raikes was tough as nails. She insisted that her students, including me, write up professional-quality lab reports, starting with our hypotheses. One of my best friends from home, Clay Anderson, is an astronaut now. He’s going back to the space station in two weeks, and he gives my mom a great deal of the credit for his success.

So, you see, I was pretty good in STEM. I was pretty hopeful about my future.

Then I went to Stanford. Naturally, given my career goals, I took engineering calculus my first quarter. Everything was fine until the midterm. Before Professor Peter Winkler handed it back, I remember him announcing that the median was an 85.

So when I saw that my grade was a 47, I decided I had to drop out.

Try to imagine where I was coming from. I aced advanced math at Ashland High School in Nebraska. I won the science fair. If those things translated into being doubled up by everyone else in my first class at Stanford, then I figured it was time to go back home.

Luckily, Professor Winkler intervened. He told me that most of my classmates had gone to fancy private schools and learned everything on the midterm the year before. He promised that we’d burned though the stuff they knew, and that they’d get theirs on the final. He also taught me how to study. I thought I only needed to read the text book. He introduced me to problem sets. Lots of problem sets.

So I stuck around, I did my problems, and I proved Professor Winkler right. I got a 92 on the final exam; that time, the median was 67.

I remember those numbers so clearly because they mark what I now think of as my own personal resurrection. I ended up getting a degree in engineering economic systems and building a satisfying career in software—and now another one in philanthropy, which, I might add, is heavily science- and math-based.

I sometimes reflect on how close I came to giving up. And I was lucky. I had support from wonderful teachers and from my parents.

How many talented students don’t have those advantages? How many never make it? The evidence indicates that my resurrection was the exception, not the rule. We are wasting lots and lots of talent.

But I am hopeful that all that’s about to change. Because the STEM movement in this state is about to take off.

Just last year, with support from Microsoft, Boeing, and Battelle—as well as the Allen Foundation and the Gates Foundation—a group called the Partnership for Learning launched the Washington STEM Initiative. Over the next few months, it will launch a multi-million dollar STEM Center.

The Center is the big bet on STEM in Washington state.

For years, local businesses and nonprofit organizations like the Science Center have been working in the education sector. The STEM Center will unify that work, and add to it, so that the people in Washington who have an interest in education will also have a powerful vehicle for reforming it. The Center will test cutting-edge ideas in pilot sites throughout the state, and it will work with key players in Washington to make sure the best ideas get scaled up.

Let me repeat, the Center is opening right now. We are about to see if STEM’s potential to deliver a much better education to many more students gets realized in Washington.

So I have to ask, What are you going to do about it? I don’t mean the rhetorical you. I mean you who have come to the Foundations of Science breakfast because you care about this community and believe in the importance of STEM in society.

The Center needs your support. It needs money. It needs political muscle in Olympia. Most of all, it needs your ideas. The same processes you use to solve problems in your area of expertise can solve our schools’ problems. Using data creatively. Innovating on demand. These are things you can do, and they are things our schools need.

If you want to get in on the ground floor, I urge you to talk to Dean Allen, Brad Smith, or Elson Floyd, all of whom serve on the board. Dean Allen is here this morning.

You can also get in touch with the Partnership for Learning, which has been working on behalf of the Washington Roundtable to get the Center started.

If you care about the issues we’ve been talking about this morning, then nothing is more important than the success of the Washington STEM Center.

Every child should have an Alice Raikes, that tough as nails junior high teacher who makes them believe they can be an astronaut. Every young adult should have a Professor Winkler, who gives them the confidence and the skills they need to beat the curve. With a thriving STEM movement, we will all have our chance at resurrection. We can resurrect our students’ capacity for innovation and our country’s competitiveness in the 21st century global economy.

It’s about our kids; it’s about their education.

Thank you.

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