Eight months after playing a lead role at a special White House summit on access to higher education in America, Franklin & Marshall College President Daniel R. Porterfield on Sept. 22 addressed the White House's STEM Education Workshop at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he called on colleges and universities to seek out and recruit more minorities and women to STEM fields.
"It's why the President, the First Lady, and the White House issued a call to action at last January’s White House Summit," Porterfield said. "They did so because of the problem we’re here to solve: the persistent underrepresentation of women and minorities in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math -- fields that will grow and change exponentially in the years to come, and which demand full representation of American leaders drawn from all communities."
At the workshop held as part of the White House's "College Opportunity Initiative," Porterfield was one of four speakers to address more than 100 national leaders in higher education, government and business on the topic "Barriers, Opportunities and Success" for students in the STEM fields. The other three panelists were University of Colorado Boulder Provost Russell Moore, University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, and White House Associate Director for Science Jo Handelsman in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The event was a follow-up to the White House's Jan. 16 Higher Education Summit, where Porterfield urged the nation's higher education community to abandon the myth that low-income students cannot achieve, and instead recognize and recruit from the high-achieving academic talent in the nation's low-income student populations.
The invitation to participate in this week's STEM workshop came after F&M was named during the January summit as one of 10 leading colleges and universities in the country that collectively will provide STEM scholarships for 500 students during the next five years. The Posse Foundation selected F&M and the other colleges to each receive $100,000 per year to help support full-tuition, four-year scholarships for annual cohorts of 10 talented students demonstrating interest and aptitude in STEM fields.
In his remarks at the Colorado workshop, Porterfield outlined the opportunity before the country's colleges and universities to increase the number of scientists, technicians, engineers and mathematicians, and to do so by tapping into a large, untapped pool of under-served talent.
"We all know the STEM fields are pivotal to American economic competitiveness, national security, public health, energy independence, job creation, and our ability to prolong the health and productivity of the older members of our aging society," he said. "And we know that the rates of change and knowledge growth in the STEM fields are accelerating rapidly -- even as STEM literacy and broad ethical reflection about new technologies lag behind."
Porterfield pointed out the contradiction that, according to a 2011 National Academy of Sciences report, while under-represented minority groups comprise 28.5 percent of our national population, they represent just 9.1 percent of college-educated Americans in science and engineering.
Colleges cannot continue to miss out on these students, Porterfield said. "We have to find them. We have to reach them. We cannot let the best minds of a generation go uncultivated because we lack the vision to see their talent."
In addition to the session on barriers and opportunities, the daylong event included a session on innovations in STEM teaching and learning, as well as several thematic working sessions on such topics as course design, experiential learning and promoting persistence through graduation for students in STEM fields.
As part of his remarks, Porterfield cited some of Franklin & Marshall's graduates who today are societal leaders in STEM: former Mayo Clinic CEO Dennis Cortese '66; Stan Dudrick '57, who invented intravenous feeding, which has saved millions of lives; editor of the journal Science and American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Alan Leshner '65; and Wanda Austin '75, president and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, the organization that handles all of the Pentagon's space defense and much of the country's space technology. The Bronx native attended F&M as a first-generation, African American woman and majored in math.
"This success -- this legacy of excellence -- is precisely why it matters so much that all of us work decisively and together to expand access to the top colleges," Porterfield said. "That’s where the resources are strongest and the trajectories of alumni are most powerful."
The Colorado workshop is one of four White House College Opportunity Initiative programs being held around the country this fall to bring together F&M and other institutions that made commitments to STEM at the January summit.