Nearly half of U.S. college graduates spent time on community and technical college campuses. The skilled technical workforce – those outside four-year institutions who use science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in their jobs – consists of approximately 16 million individuals, and it is estimated by next year, 35 percent of the STEM workforce will have sub-baccalaureate degrees. During the quarterly meeting of the 24-member National Science Board (NSB), which establishes overall priorities for the National Science Foundation (NSF), one topic of discussion centered around a draft work plan on how the agency can reach students outside the traditional four-year college institutions to develop the shifting STEM workforce. The plan being developed outlines key questions that drive NSF’s outreach to these specific education communities, including the definition of the skilled technical workforce, available data resources, and the optimal roll of the NSB and NSF. Dr. Victor McCrary (Vice President, Research and Economic Development, Morgan State University) said that after extensive stakeholder outreach, events including public sessions to engage stakeholders and students have been organized to obtain a real world understanding of the opportunities and challenges faced by those in this workforce.
Dr. Celeste Carter (Director, Advanced Technological Education (ATE)), highlighted the importance placed on the skilled technical workforce by the ATE (a program of NSF) directorate. With an emphasis on two-year colleges, ATE focuses on the education of technicians for high-technology fields that drive the economy. The program has awarded more than $950 million in awards supporting almost 500 institutions, reaching almost 40 percent of community and technical colleges. She emphasized that NSF positions itself as a catalyzing agent of change – “The awards may not be as huge as some other agencies would make, but what we make with it makes a huge difference.”
During an afternoon session of NSB committee reports, Dr. Robert M. Groves (Professor, Georgetown University) broached the idea of convergence. This is characterized as the integration of knowledge from multiple fields to enhance new and expanded frameworks to address scientific and societal challenges and opportunities. He said NSF is “well positioned to foster convergence science because of the agency’s deep connections across all of the sciences.” Dr. Geraldine Richmond (Chair, NSB’s National Science and Engineering Policy Committee) discussed emerging science, with one member postulating that NSF is in the best position to identify emerging technologies due to the sheer number of proposals received on new ideas.
U.S. competition in global markets and technological advancement dictates the need to reevaluate our education and how we are inspiring the next generation of STEM workers and leaders. The maintenance and improvement of our national security has its roots in the technical workforce and in the engagement and outreach done by NSB and NSF. Armed with information on shifting workforce demographics, and with the next NSB meeting scheduled for August 15-16, 2017, we can continue to build our STEM success.