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Exploring the Complexity of Solving the STEM Learning and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Challenge

by Carly Colvin, Workforce Development Projects Manager, NextFlex

NextFlex, America’s Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute, launched a new virtual Roundtable series this month entitled “The Future of the Workforce: Meet the Changemakers.” Through this exciting new platform, NextFlex will be convening thought leaders from industry, academia, and government to investigate the challenges associated with securing the country’s STEM workforce.

Our first Roundtable, hosted with Mission College, explored the complex relationship between technology, STEM education and employment, opportunity, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Moderated by Emily McGrath, Director of Workforce Development at NextFlex, participants representing government, industry, and education provided insights into how important diversity of perspective is in innovation industries and explored multidimensional solutions to the challenges they identified. Participants included:

  • The Honorable Alex Lee, California State Assembly, 25th District
  • Karen Bradford, Director of Ames Strategic Partnerships, NASA Ames Research Center
  • Sarah Mastroianni, Principal Investigator, Transportation and Industrial, DuPont
  • Jeff Pallin, Dean, Business, Technology and Kinesiology, Mission College
  • Courtney Power, Workforce Development Portfolio Manager, NextFlex

Ms. McGrath opened the Roundtable discussion by stating that the gap of manufacturing jobs in the US is projected to widen, reaching 2.1 million vacancies by 2030, and the crisis this represents has educators, industry and government seeking to find ways to solve the problem. But the problem is so complex that it will take collaborative efforts – working together across multiple fronts – to improve on this projected gap.

Assemblymember Alex Lee spoke about the importance of this issue, stating that the future workforce will be even more intertwined with technology and that a multidimensional set of solutions is needed if the community is to support the industrial manufacturing base in the future. He said that it is the role of government to provide resources to educators and school districts that have defined needs. Upskilling, reskilling, and recruiting and training teachers to embrace inclusive practices are all supports that can be encouraged by government.  Lee went on to say that fortunately, with the budget surplus, California was able to fund many important support programs in the past year. Ultimately, he said, we should encourage students to follow their passion and not make them fit into a “one size fits all” solution.

Dean Jeff Pallin of Mission College spoke about the challenges community colleges face in recruiting a diverse pool of students. Currently, enrollment does not reflect the diversity of the community and the pandemic has added additional barriers to new enrollment. He cited challenges in access, language, personal support, etc., as well as a lack of awareness of the wide array of support services available to prospective students. His top concern is reaching the most underserved communities and helping them to understand all the services that exist to support students and then motivating them to utilize them. He concluded by highlighting a new trend – falling enrollment in STEM education by young men.

Ms. Bradford of NASA said that they, too, struggle to have their workforce reflect the demographics of the communities in which NASA has facilities. She explained that diversity in their workforce is of paramount importance because innovation is required to advance all areas of life but especially space exploration. In addition, reaching out to diverse communities is key to the future workforce but it is difficult to scale, and we need a new model. NASA leverages a multi-channel approach to recruiting through universities, social media, professional societies, and even parents and grandparents – informing and encouraging young people through those who are influential in their lives. She concluded her remarks by saying that it’s not enough to be inclusive in the work environment, we must strive for “belonging,” to retain the workers they work so hard to recruit.

Dr. Sarah Mastroianni of DuPont talked about the role of industry through the lens of major companies but also the complex network of suppliers and others that are required to successfully generate an end product. She said that innovation happens throughout all levels of their supply chain and innovation thrives best when you have diverse perspectives. Dr. Mastroianni also discussed the importance of expanding recruiting approaches to include active outreach to networks of under-represented individuals, citing examples including the Society of Women Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers as organizations that can help companies expand the diversity of their candidate pools.

Ms. Power said that the pandemic has shown us all how dependent we are on the K12 educational structure. She went on to say that required instructional content creates trade-offs. State-mandated curricula does not leave room for self-exploration of concepts of interest and can limit extension opportunities to students with access and means. We are meant to be door openers not gatekeepers; our role should be to help young people see themselves in STEM careers. She concluded by saying what she’s found is that young people need to hear personal stories because success is different for everyone.

The Roundtable then moved into a discussion about potential solutions. Ms. Bradford said that young people should be coached to understand that failure is only a steppingstone and that nothing is a failure if one learns from it.

Dr. Mastroianni commented that in her experience, blended teams, those without titles and education labels, are key to “out of the box” solutions. Shifting our thinking about recruitment strategies is important, but coaching candidates to be successful in their interviews is critical to successfully expanding participation in the STEM workforce.

Dean Jeff Pallin concluded the Roundtable by talking about his optimism about the future. Mission College is working on two fronts to increase diversity in its enrollment. First, they are working with NextFlex and the FlexFactor® program, which raises awareness of STEM education and career pathways with high school classrooms across the country, and a program called Year Up, a personalized job training and skill building program that culminates with paid internships.  He said that solutions need to be specific, and these are two great examples that are already having a positive impact for Mission College.

NextFlex was honored to have these innovative leaders share their ideas and experience around the challenges to and solutions for creating an inclusive STEM ecosystem. Through these conversations we hope to share learnings and best practices for the attraction and retention of a diverse and qualified STEM talent pool, securing the country’s industrial base and providing opportunity for communities across the nation.

For more information about NextFlex’s Learning Portfolio, please contact us at info@nextflex.us.

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