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by Robin Willner

That Creative Spark

All students need STEM— but more besides.

The boardroom and the classroom have more in common than you might think. In a survey of company chief executives in 60 countries and 33 industries, 1,500 CEOs responded that – more than rigor, management discipline, integrity, or even vision – navigating an increasingly complex world will require individuals to possess creativity.

My company, IBM, believes the same holds true for STEM education: At their core, science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines require creativity to teach and to apply in the real world in order to solve problems and forge new paths. When taught well, these disciplines show young people how to learn, preparing them to approach problems in creative ways, regardless of their future professions. STEM courses also can equip our young people with the critical thinking and problem-solving skills they need to be 21st-century citizens.

IBM recognizes the need to build the base of scientists and engineers and prepare the next generation of innovators. To ensure a constant flow of talent in science and engineering, we need to attend to the earliest stages in the K-12 pipeline. Young students must complete a rigorous curriculum so that they have the option of pursuing scientific, technical, and multidisciplinary degrees in college.

Yet, STEM cannot be reserved solely for future scientists and engineers. We must ensure that all elementary, middle, junior high, and high school students have the experiences that will generate enthusiasm about these subjects. At the same time, it must be integrated with other skills required for 21st-century success.

Since many of tomorrow’s jobs haven’t been invented, young people must learn how to improvise. - Robin Willner, vice president for Global Community Initiatives at IBM, served on a National Academies panel on K-12 engineering education.   To lead in a world increasingly fraught with economic, social, and environmental turmoil, young people must be able to work in multicultural, multilingual, multidisciplinary teams. They will need advanced communications skills. According to estimates, 85 percent of tomorrow’s jobs haven’t been invented yet. Because no one knows exactly what information and knowledge will be needed, young people must learn how to apply what they learn and to improvise.

Fostering such skills for all young people is a tall order. Excellent math and science teachers need content knowledge and pedagogic expertise, but in our nation’s middle schools today, nearly 70 percent of students are assigned a math teacher who holds no major or any certification in mathematics.

Clearly schools cannot bear the burden alone. Corporations need to find innovative ways to help. In 2005, IBM launched Transition to Teaching, a program that provides company-paid tuition, leaves of absence, and mentoring for skilled employees interested in pursuing a second career teaching math or science. More than 130 employees are now serving, or will go on to serve, as math and science teachers in our nation’s schools. If other companies join the effort, tens of thousands of highly qualified teachers could be produced.

Volunteers can make an amazing difference. Through IBM’s On Demand Community program, more than 150,000 IBM employees and retirees have contributed 10 million-plus service hours to schools and nonprofits since November 2002. I’ve seen our engineers inspire thousands of boys and girls in classrooms around the world by building spaghetti bridges, mummifying apples, and setting pickles on fire. For others without a formal corporate program, volunteering can be as easy as signing up to participate in National Lab Day at

Companies can also contribute to training global citizens. IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, a corporate version of the Peace Corps, deploys employees to work with government, nonprofit, and nongoverment organizations in countries like Ghana, Romania, Tanzania, the Philippines, and Vietnam, addressing critical local concerns. IBM helps improve communities in underdeveloped areas while bringing new skills to our employees and helping them develop into global corporate citizens.

With a little bit of creativity, we can nurture and inspire the greatest generation of thinkers, doers, and innovators across an array of fields.

Robin Willner, vice president for Global Community Initiatives at IBM, served on a National Academies panel on K-12 engineering education.




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