Department of Energy Labs Push to Fill STEM Void

Government-run facilities nationwide try different outreach programs to woo students.

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DALLAS—The Department of Energy's 19 "National Labs" have pushed the envelope for years, doing the work that private industry and universities "can't ... won't ... or shouldn't do," and they're beginning to usher in the latest generation of American scientists with public-private partnerships and "STEM hubs" near many of their campuses.

Formed after the development of the nuclear bomb, the labs have focused on "solving the most difficult problems not only for the nation, but for the world," according to Karen Gardner, director of human resources at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico and Southern California. Those labs host some of the world's fastest supercomputers and have designed the components necessary to build nuclear weapons.

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The National Laboratories employ more than 26,000 scientists, plus about 700 student interns each summer--but a few years ago, directors of some of the laboratories noticed that the pipeline of intern candidates was drying up, which Bill Rogers, director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, said could put America's national security at risk.

"National labs do what industry and universities can't do because it's too expensive or dangerous, won't do because it's too risky, or shouldn't do because they are government programs with a military or homeland security national interest," he said.

They decided to do something about the shortage--in Tennessee, the Oak Ridge Laboratory has started a program to train 150 STEM teachers and will host a three-day, intensive STEM Leadership Academy to teach educators best classroom practices. On Long Island, the Brookhaven National Laboratory has partnered with the Long Island Museum of Science to launch the Portal to Discovery, which Kenneth White, manager of the lab's educational programs, calls a "transition place between community and the laboratory."

"It'll create a microcosm of the laboratory," he said. "We're connecting the industries of Long Island to students and teachers to help them understand career paths."

The labs also recruit students by holding family outreach nights at local schools, attending the national Science Bowl, and looking for talent at STEM competitions.