Editor’s note: WRAL Local Tech Wire has added another feature with the launch of the "Innovation Exchange." Noah Garrett, former executive director of communications for the North Carolina Technology Association, is a creative spirit, from writing music to news stories, who recently launched NGC Communications. The focus of the Innovation Exchange is just that – creating a Web community through which people can exchange ideas and foster creativity.

Participate in the Exchange. Send ideas and feedback to: noah@thinkngc.com

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — The next American Idols will be STEM superstars, as in science, technology, engineering and math, says Dr. Kemi Jona.

As America’s reliance on technology grows and the lack of STEM-focused students brews into a crisis, Jona just very well could be correct.

Jona is a research associate professor of learning sciences and computer science at Northwestern University and director of the Office of STEM Education Partnerships, where he leads research and development projects in curriculum design, learning technology, online science and virtual labs, and Web-based patient education and outreach.

Over the course of his career, Jona has designed and overseen the development of custom learning solutions for numerous corporate clients, including GE Capital, Wal-Mart, Eaton/Cutler-Hammer, Deloitte and Accenture. He also led a multiyear partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that produced an award-winning interactive learning system in use throughout the U.S.

He is also president of Kemi Jona Associates, an independent consulting practice that helps learning organizations improve the quality, competitiveness and accessibility of their offerings, take best advantage of existing and new technologies, and reduce development expenses. It was an honor for him to take a few moments out of his busy schedule to talk with us about STEM education and outreach and to participate in the Innovation Exchange.

First of all, Dr. Jona, what is the biggest challenge(s) you see when it comes to STEM today?

There are two interrelated problems: STEM work force and STEM education. The need for a work force that is skilled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics areas is closely linked to the idea of American competitiveness in the global economy – and that has really gotten a lot more traction and visibility recently. High-tech companies have tens of thousands of jobs they can’t find qualified applicants to take. These are really good, high-paying jobs. Microsoft alone has something like 17,000 unfilled positions. And, the problem is only going to get worse with the upcoming wave of retiring baby-boomers.

Add to that the sense that we have serious problems to solve in the areas of alternative energy and global warming, and I think the public is waking up to the importance of a having a well-prepared STEM work force in order to keep America’s leadership position in innovation and in the global economy. This is what has really driven increased awareness in addressing the STEM education issue. You don’t magically get a STEM work force. You have to educate today’s students in these important skills now if you want to prepare the work force to fill these kinds of jobs.

How can STEM be better promoted and publicized in the media?

The media can play a very important role in raising the public’s awareness of the great careers that are available to people with strong STEM skills. There is a big misconception, left over from the bursting of the Internet bubble that high-tech jobs are too risky or all being outsourced. This couldn’t be more incorrect, as the number of unfilled jobs attests. The media can help correct this misconception and highlight the really cool jobs that are available in these fields.

How can we improve the retention and graduation rates of STEM students?

Retaining students in STEM fields is a tough problem and can’t be solved with a single solution. A good start, in my opinion, would be to start developing project-based curriculums that are based on the kinds of real-world activities STEM professionals do. This will help students see the relevance of what they are learning and get exposed to a variety of interesting career roles at the same time. Plus, students learn best by doing, so active project-based learning is far more motivating and effective than boring lectures. I’m also a big advocate of job shadowing, internships and summer job opportunities. We need to be doing a better job partnering with industry to make these kinds of programs more widely available to today’s students.

How can we get more students and parents, etc., excited about STEM?

A lot of the same things that I mentioned for retaining students in STEM also are effective for getting folks excited about STEM. For parents, I think a media campaign that encourages them to get their children into STEM learning, both in and out of school, and highlights the great STEM career opportunities available to them is a great place to start. We need an "American Idol" for STEM superstars, not just singers.

How can we leverage the media to start paying more attention to our country’s STEM crisis?

This is tricky because the media generally doesn’t pay attention unless something is seen as an immediate crisis. The problem right now is that we don’t have a single momentous event like Sputnik to galvanize the country’s attention around STEM education. Skyrocketing gas prices has helped get the public’s attention with respect to fuel economy. The problem with the emerging STEM work force crisis is that it happens gradually. Companies lose talent gradually. If they can’t find people here, they will hire someone in India or China, one position at a time. However, it isn’t like a bunch of major companies would suddenly shut off the lights here and move their buildings overseas all in one day. Now that would definitely make the nightly news!

What changes in skills are expected for professionals in the near future, and how are these skills communicated to our students working in today’s educational system?

Most of these skills are already pretty clear and in use today: teamwork, collaboration, strong verbal and written communication skills, information organization and critical analysis. The problem is that almost none of these skills are part of the education system today. Students spend most of their time working individually, not in teams. Looking at someone else’s document in school is called cheating. In the workplace it is called collaboration. Much of the educational system is shaped by how well students can memorize facts and spit them back out on tests. Barely any jobs require those particular skills. Yet that is what we are training the current generation of students to be good at. One new set of skills that cuts across many jobs, especially in the sciences, is the use of what is called cyberinfrastructure, which uses computational tools like networks, databases, computer models, simulations, data analysis, and visualization. Nearly every field is being reshaped this way and those students who know how to use it are going to have a big advantage. But again, none of this is currently being taught in schools.

When referring to growing international cooperation in research and education, what are the effects STEM education will have for U.S. students now and tomorrow?

Most major new scientific research and large-scale corporate efforts involve multinational networks of partners enabled by cyberinfrastructure. This is how Boeing designs and builds airplanes and Lenovo designs and builds laptops. If you want to be successful in research or business in the future, you are going to need to understand how to work within this kind of networked, multinational organization. In fact, you will probably be part of several of these real or virtual organizations at one time. If we don’t do a better job preparing our students in STEM and in the skills needed to work in this type of environment, they will be at a significant disadvantage in the future work force.

What are real or practical uses of new technologies (including cyberinfrastructure developments) in both education and research?

Cyberinfrastructure allows you to do work in ways that simply couldn’t be done before. Scientists now use huge sensor networks to collect data from all over the globe and feed it into giant databases that are shared by researchers in many countries. These "large-scale observatories" were never feasible before. For example, I am working on a project called GLOBE Watershed Dynamics to help connect kids and teachers to these kinds of scientific databases so that a high school student can analyze the same data the scientists have. This can really change the way that science education happens in classrooms by making it look a lot more like what real scientists do, and also teach students about how to work with cyberinfrastructure. Once the investment is made in creating this kind of cyberinfrastructure for scientists, why not take advantage of it for education as well?

How can we advance the understanding of the cause/effect scenario when it comes to broadening participation in STEM education?

Parents, employers, teachers all need to do their part in helping make students aware of the breadth of STEM careers, and the excitement of the kinds of challenging problems you get to work on with these jobs. Then we need to make STEM education resemble these exciting job roles as much as possible to close the gap between what STEM jobs look like and what STEM education looks like. That will motivate students and help them see the relevance of what they are learning to possible future career options. There is no bigger turnoff than having to memorize facts and formulas that aren’t made relevant to solving realistic problems. That’s not what a STEM job is about and it shouldn’t be what STEM education is about either.

Quick reminder: The deadline for the “Start Doing For STEM Contest” to help develop a logo/branding concept for a national STEM media campaign this summer are due June 1. Whoever can develop the best logo and branding tagline for this new STEM campaign will receive one month free consulting service from NGC Communications and a WRAL Local Tech Wire Prize Pack. The top three entries will be publicly shared next week and the final three will be judged by you, with the winner and the new campaign announced on June 15.

This contest is open to parents, companies, students, and anyone else who is concerned about the future of our education system and our nation’s future work force. Ideas can be submitted to noah@thinkngc.com. Please enclose your daytime contact information with each entry. All entries become property of NGC Communications. Good luck!