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Thursday, September 18, 2014

New Jersey Is Working to Build a Diverse New Generation of Science and Tech Innovators


Written by Anthony Cicatiello and David Hodges

When people consider particular states, certain thoughts come to mind. If someone mentions California, chances are good that images of movies and smartphones will follow. If someone talks about Michigan or Washington, the same thing might happen with cars and airplanes. These states each had something unique that provided just the right ingredients for particular types of innovation.

According to professor Michael Porter of Harvard, that something can be explained by clusters. Certain places become really good at producing certain products because they "cluster" together people, businesses, and institutions. Clusters boost productivity and stimulate competition. The more resources there are in a local area devoted to a discrete set of issues, the more innovation follows.

In New Jersey, the clustering of highly educated people, top companies, and world-renowned research universities has made it one of the premier places in the country for biopharmaceuticals, medical devices, chemical production, and knowledge creation. People like Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison, institutions like Rutgers and Johnson & Johnson, and inventions like the transistor and phonograph all helped the state become a hub for innovation.

Despite the institutional advantages that New Jersey possesses, however, it is still challenged by the same forces assailing the nation. In this country, one of the perennial problems that educators, politicians, and business leaders talk about is a STEM student and worker shortage. The problem is illustrated by the country's stagnant performance in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's comprehensive survey, which found the American education system performing at roughly the same level as countries like Russia, Portugal, and Hungary. STEM educators were particularly alarmed; in science, the United States ranks 21st, a below-average number among wealthy industrialized nations.

For New Jersey and other states, the problem is especially acute. By 2018, New Jersey will need to fill more than 269,000 STEM jobs. This problem is made worse by young people leaving the state to attend college and older individuals leaving New Jersey in their retirement years.

In 2008, New Jersey led the nation with a net loss of 27,343 students who left the state to go to college. If past patterns hold, many will not return to the state to work or live. By 2018, New Jersey will also bear a large portion of the 2.4 million job vacancies that baby boomers will create when they retire from positions in STEM fields.

In responding to this problem, New Jersey and similar states might start by looking at the story of Morris Tanenbaum. Nearly 60 years ago, Tanenbaum helped develop the world's first silicon transistor in New Jersey. By using silicon as a semiconductor, instead of germanium, an element out of which early transistors were made, Tanenbaum sparked a technological revolution. Today, the silicon transistor is the crucial part of integrated circuits that drive microprocessors and electronic devices in tablets and smartphones. This innovation, however, might never have happened but for a serendipitous encounter.

It was a Princeton tradition for graduate students to introduce undergraduates to local research laboratories, and Tanenbaum was invited to a place he had never heard of called Bell Labs. Tanenbaum was so impressed by what he saw at Bell that he asked for an interview, which turned into a job. At the suggestion of the transistor's inventor, William Shockley, Tanenbaum and others worked together to develop the silicon transistor. Tanenbaum helped create the modern world.

Today, we might think that because of the Internet and availability of information, a near-miss like Tanenbaum's story could never happen. But when we look at the coming STEM shortage and the nation's educational performance, there is too much to lose to leave things to chance.

One way New Jersey is addressing this problem is through the Governor's STEM Scholars Program, a unique public-private partnership developed among leading companies, the Governor's Office, the New Jersey Department of Education, and the secretary of Higher Education.

The program comprises a diverse group of 50 of the best and brightest high school and college students from communities across the state. It exposes them to all New Jersey has to offer in STEM. Rather than rely on chance encounters, the program is giving these scholars a comprehensive introduction to all the STEM clusters in the state.

In designing the program, we worked with the state Education Department to ensure that superintendents in each county learned about the program and passed it on to students in every corner of the state. Given that New Jersey is a state with some areas that are not as wealthy as others, this helped ensure that the program was available to everyone who applied, rather than just the students who were fortunate to be born in the most-privileged areas. Similarly, we were interested in attracting female applicants to see if we could help close the gap between the genders in STEM. To our delight, the ratio of male to female applicants was almost even and nearly every single applicant provided evidence of sparkling academic performance. The applications also showed strong leadership qualities. Students who volunteer in their community or serve as presidents of local and regional STEM societies and those who are already busy conducting research all submitted applications.

At the program's core are four conferences that aim to mentor, educate, and inspire the scholars by giving them a comprehensive introduction to STEM professionals and the work already being done in the state. The conferences will be supplemented by trips into the field where the scholars will get firsthand exposure to things like 3D printing, nanotechnology, and more. We anticipate that connecting our state's top STEM students to working STEM professionals will open up mutually beneficial doors of research, opportunity, and development.

The Research & Development Council of New Jersey knows that states that are STEM leaders can be at the forefront of addressing the nation's STEM shortage. Unlike other states, we already have the clusters--of people, businesses, and institutions--that drive innovation and develop research. The group will include students from all over the state from all types of backgrounds because we also know that it is important for STEM opportunities to be available to everyone.

New Jersey-based innovators gave the world the light bulb, the silicon transistor, and the antibiotic streptomycin. We can do it again.

Anthony Cicatiello serves as president of the Research & Development Council of New Jersey and David Hodges is director of the Governor's STEM Scholars. Since 1962, the council has served as a united voice that brings together the state's government, industries, and academic institutions in advancing research and development and STEM education in New Jersey. To learn more about the Governor's STEM Scholars Program, please visit the website or @GovSTEMScholars.

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