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Students participate in Cognizant Technology Solutions' Young Maker Workshop program which seeks to foster interest in STEM subjects.

Educate to Innovate seeks to spark interest in math and science careers

by Rebecca Halleck
Apr 24, 2013


Aaron Fodor

Mark Greenlaw mentors students.

Supporters of Educate to Innovate, an initiative prioritized in President Obama’s 2014 budget, are looking forward to increased funding going towards careers in science, technology, engineering and math (commonly referred to as STEM), and they’re hoping to see increased interest in these types of jobs among children.

The president’s plan emphasizes private corporations’ involvement through a program called US2020 and allocates extra funding for organizations that pay special attention to women and minorities—both underrepresented in STEM industries.

US2020 encourages professionals from 10 major education non-profits and U.S. technology companies to mentor children from kindergarten through college. Each of the organizations has pledged to have 20 percent of their workforce volunteering 20 hours per year by 2020.

Cognizant Technology Solutions, an IT and consulting company based in New Jersey, is one of the 10 groups participating in US2020.

“We believe that generating interest in STEM subjects is the most important factor in getting children to pursue STEM careers,” says Mark Greenlaw, vice president in charge of sustainability and educational affairs. “Rather than just listening to theoretical science in a classroom.”

As part of Cognizant’s ‘Making the Future’ program, already in place before President Obama’s new initiative, Greenlaw and his co-workers have helped kids create solar cars and robots, learn the programming language SCRATCH used to make video games, and sew microcontrollers with LEDs into clothes.

“All our projects are hands-on. We’re not lecturing kids about science and math,” Greenlaw says. “Maybe they had to use a little algebra along the way but it’s more about the ‘Hey, I did this’ factor when the kids get to take the projects home.”

In addition to generating interest, Educate to Innovate also emphasizes encouraging women and minorities to pursue STEM fields. Both groups are typically underrepresented in these industries, something Girls Excelling in Math and Science founder Laura Reasoner Jones has first-hand experience with.

When Jones’ daughter Julie was entering fourth grade she said, “math is too hard,  Mommy,” spurring Jones to start the first GEMS club. She found ways to spur Julie and her friends’ interest in STEM subjects through activities such as inviting surveyors to teach the girls about their careers while taking them on a ‘treasure hunt.’

There are now more than 20 GEMS clubs in the United States and they were recently invited to participate in the Clinton Global Initiative in Chicago.

Above all, “the world needs their contributions,” Jones says of young women. “That sounds idealistic, but if you don’t have the perspectives of women you’re not going to have the things made to meet the needs of everyone,” she said, citing the example of automatic doors on mini-vans.

Jones compiled the knowledge she’s attained over the years about how to foster interest in STEM subjects. She makes that information readily available on the club website, “it’s all free, there’s nothing in it for me or anyone else,” she says. “I just want other parents and educators to know it is possible to do this.”

Sparking kids’ interest in math and science early is crucial, according to numerous studies, including one that recently came out of MIT and parents can play an invaluable role in that.

“My dad has been a computer software engineer his whole life and seeing what he did really influenced me,” says Lavanya Iyer, president of the Women in Computer Science club at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Iyer, a junior computer-science major, aspires to work in web development, big data and data mining when she graduates. “In the future I hope to continue working with middle and high school students and growing their interest in computer science, I’m very passionate about that,” she says.