President Obama met with a group of business executives at the White House earlier this week to discuss ways to ensure a competitive workforce in the future. After the meeting, the executives committed more than $100 million from their companies to support educational programs.
Two major initiatives make up the bulk of new money pledged. America's Promise Alliance, a coalition of more than 400 corporations led by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, committed to raise $50 million to reduce the nation's dropout rate by improving some of the lowest-performing K-12 schools. Bank of America pledged to donate $50 million over the next three years to organizations working to close the achievement gap between ethnicities.
Fred Humphries, senior vice president at Microsoft, was at the meeting; the software giant announced it was going to invest $15 million into developing immersive learning programs, such as game-based instruction.
"America's business leaders understand that when it comes to education, we need to up our game. That's why were working together to put an outstanding education within reach for every child," President Obama said in a statement. Obama has put a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math education. In his State of the Union address in January, the president said he wanted America to train 100,000 additional STEM teachers over the next 10 years.
[Read about why many STEM teachers aren't certified.]
Before heading to Monday's meeting with President Obama, Rick Stephens, senior vice president of human resources and administration for the Boeing Company, spoke at the nearby Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars about the need for improved STEM education in the country.
He said the pervasiveness of technology in American society is a double-edged sword when it comes to educational achievement.
"Most [adults] learned the way Leonardo Da Vinci did, they learned by observing," he said. "They took what they learned in the real world into the classroom, learned more in the classroom, then brought it back to the real world. Life and school were completely connected."
With the average teen spending more than seven hours a day consuming entertainment media, they are not getting the hands-on experiences they need to succeed in the classroom and in the workplace, he said.
"Technology of all kinds can help manage and motivate humanity forward," Stephens said. "But let's not confuse sophistication and the ability to play video games with real maturity and understanding."
He advocates programs such as FIRST Robotics, where students work in teams to finance and build a robot that can solve sophisticated problems. Successful programs such as FIRST, he says, have five main components: They give students hands-on experiences, relate to children's interests, provide real-life role models and mentors (students work with professional engineers while building their robots), and provide students an incentive to improve their performance (with regional and national competitions).
Corporations such as Boeing, Stephens said, are struggling to find well-prepared engineers to work for their companies—even with unemployment rates at record highs. "We do not have a labor shortage," he said. "We have a skills shortage. There aren't enough people with the right skills to fill the jobs."
[Learn how companies are promoting STEM education.]
Major corporations realize they need to invest in STEM education to ensure there are enough employees to fill difficult job openings. But sinking money into unproven programs is a waste, Stephens said. Companies know there is a STEM education crisis in the country, but they must do a better job of identifying programs worthy of an investment.
"There's adequate funding—everybody wants to support STEM. We look and see that there's a STEM conference every day in this country," he said. "We need to identify the sorts of things that allow programs to be successful, and put the right resources into them to make them successful."