Note: The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of Local Tech Wire and business editor of WRAL.com.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Among the many challenges the U.S. faces today, few are as important as finding, encouraging and training more students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

If we are to stem the flow of jobs out of this country and foster more innovation within our borders, STEM education simply must be a higher priority.

Fortunately, North Carolina has an organization focused on that task – appropriately named And the group has drawn national attention, particularly from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has provided more than $900,000 in grants over the past two years.

Earlier this year, the Gates Foundation awarded $432,000 for a “Community Collaborative Visioning Process” to help spark more support in three communities.

“This grant not only increased the [Gates Foundation] investment into N.C., but shows the support of a community-led approach to sustainable, catalytic improvements in education,” said Karl Rectanus, the leader of NC STEM.

On Friday, leaders of NC STEM as well as supporters from the Gates Foundation as well as other backers, such as MCNC, will gather in Raleigh at the William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation on N.C. State’s Centennial Campus to discuss challenges and opportunities in the state. “Turning STEM Conversations into Action: Collaborative Networks Designed for Sustainability” will also include demonstrations of STEM projects.

Of particular interest will be that NC STEM Collaborative Communities effort, which is a grassroots initiative to get more local leaders and citizens involved in the STEM cause.

Community backers are providing more than $20,000 in support for each effort. MCNC, operator of the state-wide N.C. Research and Education Network, is a supporter, too.

Among Friday’s speakers is David Ferrero, the STREM Lead at the Gates Foundation. Also scheduled to attend is N.C. Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton.

NC STEM also will launch a new web site.

Conference events can be viewed over the web, but registration is required (E-mail Stacey Yasses at syasses@mcnc.org no later than Wednesday for information.)

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