Saturday, September 8, 2012

Thank you all for coming today to this very important gathering that focuses on one of the most crucial areas for the advancement of our state and our society as a whole. We at the UI are proud to host this celebration of STEM featuring FIRST, and I welcome you to our university and the Iowa City community. I also give special thanks to Governor Branstad, Lieutenant Governor Reynolds, my Regents university colleagues Presidents Allen and Leath, J. P. Besong from Rockwell Collins, Ken Johnson from FIRST, Pat Barnes from John Deere, and everyone else involved in today’s program for their leadership in STEM education and their participation in today’s celebration.

We all know that our work in setting young people on strong career paths by sparking their passion for STEM subjects is becoming only more and more critical. Our state and country’s economic growth and leadership in innovation depend on fresh, young minds becoming passionate, creative thinkers and doers in STEM areas. The US Department of Labor says that fifteen of the twenty fastest-growing occupations projected for 2014 require significant mathematics and science preparation. We not only must prepare students for this future but also inspire them to do so. Early exposure to positive STEM experiences is crucial when young people determine whether or not they are interested in science in their adolescent years. And once students reach their secondary education years, we need to provide the challenging curriculum and support systems for them to continue learning at an advanced level and to prepare for college and career.

This kind of work must involve collaboration and partnership among higher education, K-12 education, and groups like FIRST. A collective advancement of STEM education will be the strongest and most effective approach. Programs like FIRST that use hands-on activities to interest and engage students in STEM have proven to be very effective and are crucial partners with our K-12 schools and higher education. I saw firsthand how effective this kind of approach was this past year when we hosted the iExploreSTEM Festival, co-sponsored by the State Hygienic Lab at our UI Research Park and the Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership. I was thrilled to welcome a large, curious, and enthusiastic group of elementary and middle-school students and their families for a day of fun and educational hands-on activities and competitions, all free and open to the public.

I also want to extend a special welcome to the students in our audience today and to say how pleased and proud we are of your involvement in STEM education. You are the future engineers and scientists who will make the new discoveries, create the new inventions, and promote the innovative new ideas of tomorrow. All of us here today strongly encourage you to continue your education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and we support you in reaching out to your fellow students on the wonders and rewards of learning in STEM areas.

I myself am a scientist, so I know firsthand the excitement of discovery—and learning—especially for young people like you. As I grew up, my educational and professional dream was to be a scientist. That had been my dream since watching the Sputnik satellite program unfold on TV as a young girl. I was the only child in my family to go to college, but I was fortunate to have parents who supported me wholeheartedly, even when it was financially difficult. What set me on my career path was a fantastic opportunity when I was a freshman at the University of Kentucky. A young biology professor—who, by the way, is an alum of the University of Iowa—invited me into his laboratory. This mentor showed me what research in the biological sciences was all about. We ultimately published a paper together, and he even helped me gain some teaching experience as a freshman lab instructor during my junior and senior years. The experience, though, was more than a simple career-launcher. It sparked my passion for research, for education, and for the world of the sciences.

My career obviously later turned toward higher education leadership, but I think my scientific background has served me very well in this role. For example, as a biologist, I was trained to think in systems and to solve problems analytically. It is in our nature as scientists to see the ways in which the parts fit with the whole—and that is exactly the job of the university president.

Regardless of what your career aspiration may be right now or what it may turn out to be down the road, one of the most important things for you to do today and always—and what will put you on the path to success—is to pursue your passion. And if that passion is in one of the STEM areas, which I hope it is, the opportunities before you are tremendous.

As the president of the University of Iowa, I am very proud that our institution has been strongly involved in STEM education and outreach for many years in many ways.

We are a partner in the Iowa Corridor STEM Initiative, along with the University of Northern Iowa, a number of K-12 school districts, and Rockwell Collins. The Initiative aims to engage Iowans to help shift the culture and mindset around science, technology, engineering, and math so that Iowa is recognized as the premier state in delivering this important type of education. The initiative evolved from an Iowa Business Council commitment made at the 2005 Iowa Summit on Math and Science, with the purpose of meeting the increasing challenge of global competition in technology development around the world.

Professor Dave Rethwisch of the UI’s Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering and Camille Sloan-Schroeder of the College of Engineering at Iowa State are Affiliate Directors of Iowa Project Lead the Way, which has had great success in the state. Activities have included a recent STEM summer camp at Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines that hosted 94 middle school girls, featuring hands-on activities, demonstrations, and speakers encouraging women and girls in science; core training institutes for teachers and a counselor conference; and school career academies and college credit courses for high school students.

As you know, we here at the University of Iowa are partnering with Kirkwood Community College as one of the six Regional STEM Hubs. But in addition to this important collaboration, the UI is also partnering with Kirkwood on the new Kirkwood Regional Center on the UI Research Park campus, planned for an early 2015 opening. Many are touting this as a national model of STEM education for high school and second-career students. This unique partnership links the spectrum of education sectors: research university, community college, and K-12. The innovative center will serve high school students from seven districts as well as community college students with technically focused career academies and advanced college courses in STEM. Unique experiences will be provided by on-campus programs through UI Hospitals and Clinics, research park companies, as well as the State Hygienic Laboratory and the National Advanced Driving Simulator, also residents on the research park. The center will also serve as an incubator to develop and assess new STEM education curricular models and teacher preparation programs at the UI and Kirkwood, and it will strengthen pre- and in-service teacher preparation in STEM fields.

Again, we at the University of Iowa are pleased and honored to be part the crucial work that we are doing with you for the young people in our state, for the Iowa economy, and for the welfare of all Iowans. I thank you for your commitment and leadership in enhancing STEM education in Iowa. Your vision and your efforts are already having profound impacts on our children’s future, as well as the future of our state and nation. I offer you my best wishes for a very successful and inspiring day.