Building a STEM-Literate State

09 September 2013
Published in Science and Society
Written by  Julie Kiefer
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Building a STEM-Literate State Utah GOED

Carol Lynn George, Ph.D., was appointed by Governor Herbert as Utah State Science Advisor this past May. Previously, she performed research on livestock cloning as a graduate student and studied human embryonic stem cells as a postdoctoral researcher. Later, she managed scientific laboratory facilities at New York University, and then started a scientific business and management consulting practice. Explore Utah Science spoke with George about the growing influence of science and technology on state government affairs.


JULIE KIEFER: What is your role as State Science Advisor?

CAROL GEORGE: I basically talk to businesses in the six economic clusters in Utah to see what their workforce needs are, see what the skill gaps are, and try to help create or modify programs to close those gaps.

JULIE KIEFER: What are some of the industry needs you’re trying to fill?

CAROL GEORGE: One example is, in the medical device industry, a large economic driver here in Utah. There is a need for regulatory affairs professionals [professionals that ensure that companies comply with regulations and laws] – not just in medical devices but also drug development and nutraceutical development. We worked with the postsecondary education, Department of Workforce services and BioUtah to create a program for earning a one-year certificate that will prepare students to take a nationally recognized certificate exam to become a regulatory affairs professional. This is funded by UCAP (Utah Cluster Acceleration Partnership) and in-kind contributions from industry.

Another area of great concern right now is manufacturing - specifically injection molding and composites [fabrication and assembly of lightweight, structurally strong materials]. Recently several new programs have been created all around the state, so we’ll start off by seeing how they are working to produce career ready graduates, if they need to be modified- for instance by adding equipment, and if they have the capacity to produce enough workers over the next 5-7 years.

JULIE KIEFER: How does the new STEM Action Center fit in?

CAROL GEORGE: We’re addressing the need to fix the leaky pipeline. Young kids start off loving science and math but by the time they graduate high school, very few of these kids are choosing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) career or college degree paths. Right now in Utah, we don’t have enough people to fill these high tech, high paying jobs. It’s an issue if we want to be competitive in a global marketplace

The STEM Action Center is a statewide scientific program aimed at getting students interested in science, technology, engineering and math. As the liason between the STEM Action Center and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), the first initiative we have been working on is piloting programs for math instructional technologies in schools starting this September.

We’re also working on how the STEM Action Center can support and increase the number of participants in science fairs, camps, and competitions. We’d especially like to encourage those who wouldn’t ordinarily participate in STEM activities, and encourage industry mentorship of kids.

JULIE KIEFER: There is a growing minority population. It seems like finding ways to add them to the pipeline might be advantageous for everyone.

CAROL GEORGE: Yes, we are hearing from industry that they would like a more diverse workforce. If we are to hit the goal of 66% of residents with a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2020, the way to do that is to address the minority, women, rural, Native American and other underserved populations.

JULIE KIEFER: Are there any specialized programs yet?

CAROL GEORGE: One of the most important things for kids is mentorship, having someone who looks like you, or can relate to you or where you came from is very important and allows kids to see the potential within themselves.

Just two weeks ago I was approached by Ceceilia Tso director of the University of Utah’s American Indian Teacher Education Collaboration. Now we are looking into how we can help Native American teacher training for STEM subjects.

I think it’ll also be important to address the skewed demographics of higher education faculty. It is like an inverted pyramid, where in elementary school there is a broad base of women and few men, but this trend is reversed when looking at higher education faculty.

JULIE KIEFER: Is one of your roles as State Science Advisor to help politicians understand scientific matters?

CAROL GEORGE: If and when I am asked, I can convene the right people from our higher education institutions all around the state to give an unbiased scientific policy brief so that then legislators could work on those policy issues at the national or state level. I’m on the State Advisory Council on Science and Technology that has members from many different sectors that convene to do exactly this kind of thing. It’s never just one voice.

JULIE KIEFER: I’m sure there are a lot of scientists who would like to have their voices heard. What advice can you give them?

CAROL GEORGE: As a country we have this great government that is a government of citizens, so scientists need to step up from the private sector and get involved in politics.

As for me, I got involved with a great group in Utah called Real Women Run. It’s a group that helps to train everyday women on how to get into public policy so that we can have these conversations.

The easiest and most effective way is for people to get involved in boards and commissions at the state level or the local level. There are boards and commissions on everything from clean air to water use to education. Meetings are open to the public and sometimes there is time for public comment.

JULIE KIEFER: We recently reported on how federal budget cuts in biomedical research are hurting research and scientific jobs in Utah. Could your office help scientists advocate at the national level?

CAROL GEORGE: Right now my focus has been on workforce development but I certainly could see a broader role for these national policy issues in the future. If it was the priority of our big research institutions to put together a policy brief about it, the State Advisory Council on Science and Technology could help them do it.

Generally, policy decisions come out of the governor’s office, but can first go through the advisement process of the experts on the advisory council and stakeholders. In the future it would be perfectly appropriate to consider that the science and technology council could bring the concern to the Governor’s Economic Council and start to build the consensus.

I think it could be appropriate to have conversations like these with research vice presidents at the higher education institutions. Could that be one of the things that we do this year? They might want to.

JULIE KIEFER: With your background in two controversial research areas - cloning and embryonic stem cells – you must be keenly aware of how a deep understanding of science can inform opinions of science-related policies. What are the best ways to help the general public understand the complexities of science?

CAROL GEORGE: This is something I think about all the time, and is why STEM education is so important. The ultimate goal is to create a scientifically literate population so that people can think critically about issues that affect them. For example, when they read that organic food is better for you, or different opinions about global warming. How do you process opinion from fact?

Compiled and edited by Julie Kiefer

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