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Baker Report: STEM education critical to regional prosperity

October 17, 2014
NIU President Doug Baker

NIU President Doug Baker

This weekend, thousands will converge on NIU’s main DeKalb campus. And I’m not speaking of fans coming for the football game. I am talking about the fifth annual STEMfest, taking place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Convocation Center.

Hosted by NIU STEM Outreach and NIU’s P-20 Center, STEMfest features exhibits from 25 NIU Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) departments, 43 student groups, Argonne National Laboratory, a number of area museums and nationally known science fiction authors.

Visitors will enjoy hundreds of hands-on activities, interactive demonstrations, informative talks and even art projects that explore concepts and careers in STEM fields.

Volunteers from across – campus students, faculty and staff alike – contribute to the success of the region’s largest STEM event and more than 160 other STEM Outreach presentations that include the popular STEM Café series. Hundreds of high school students converge at NIU three times a year for a full day of immersion in young adult books, meeting NIU experts who share the science behind the fiction and lead problem-solving challenges designed by NIU’s STEM Read.

These activities are important in cultivating an appreciation of the importance of STEM education and building a strong pipeline of STEM students that ultimately yields a globally competitive workforce and a scientifically literate citizenry.

At NIU, our goal is for every graduate to have the fundamental critical thinking, numeracy, writing and communication skills to be successful in the rapidly changing global economy, no matter the chosen field of study. STEM fields are among the key areas to build advanced problem-solving and critical thinking skills, competencies which are highly desired in managerial and professional occupations traditionally found outside the strict definition of STEM fields.

At NIU, our STEM programs are strong and getting stronger.

Our College of Engineering and Engineering Technology is experiencing tremendous growth. Ranked No. 41 in the country by U.S. News and World Report, it is also growing in national reputation. NIU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry ranks among the nation’s top universities for the number of American Chemical Society-certified bachelor’s degrees awarded annually. Our students and faculty are involved in international research at FermiLab, Argonne and other locations in the region and around the world. These are just a few select examples.

STEMfest 2013

STEMfest 2013

According to the Illinois Innovation Index, Illinois leads the Midwest in both the number of companies and jobs, and an increasing percentage of job creation will likely be in innovative sectors driven by science and technology. We intend to be a vital part of this economic development effort, which directly connects to our core value of “thriving communities.”

On Wednesday, the Illinois Science and Technology Institute announced the expansion of the Research & Development STEM Learning Exchange, which connects students to careers in STEM fields. Through a number of programs, the exchange promotes inquiry-based learning, builds critical thinking skills and provides perspective on R&D applications within Illinois industry to cultivate a stronger talent pipeline.

I am pleased to report that NIU is connected to five STEM Learning Exchanges and provides leadership for the R & D Learning Exchange, helping connect high school students and teachers in the state to mentors who guide STEM students through research projects.

By delivering on- and off-campus programs such as STEMfest and participating in the R&D STEM Learning Exchange and other programs, we increase STEM literacy and interest while also providing opportunity for engagement on campus for students and faculty and staff alike. The 21st century workplace increasingly relies on workers with strong computer and mathematical reasoning skills. By working with students throughout the pipeline from kindergarten through the senior year of college and beyond, we promote advanced education in STEM areas that ultimately increase their options in the job market and better ensure career success.

I hope to see you at this weekend’s STEMfest activities and invite you to see physics in action at Huskie Stadium afterward as NIU football plays host to Miami!