Ben Milne, founder and CEO of Dwolla Inc., was the keynote speaker at the third annual statewide science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) conference on March 28. 

The conference brought together educators and STEM advocates to talk about the future of STEM education and see examples of what students are doing through the existing programs in the state.

The Business Record caught up with Milne and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who co-chairs the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, to get their thoughts on the progress and importance of the initiative.
Milne’s message

Milne encourages businesses to open their doors for students who are interested in STEM, and encourages the state’s teachers to make connections with business leaders to set up opportunities for students. 

“My primary concern is just making sure that as students get older, they have more opportunities to connect with people outside the education system,” Milne said. “If the teachers don’t make the connections outside of the educational institution, then that’s a precarious road to go down.”


Why STEM?

Many people involved with the STEM initiative have cited statistics that say there aren’t enough people qualified to work in STEM jobs. At Dwolla, though, Milne said he hasn’t had trouble finding qualified employees to work for his company. 

His belief is that Iowa had a strong education system that has prepared students well (including himself), but that “we just have to do more of it.” 

“I have no doubt that the longer this program stays around, and the earlier in people’s education it starts touching them, the more everyone in Iowa will benefit,” Milne said.

In fact, he went a step further in his support of STEM education.

“I can’t come up with one reason why any rational human being would think STEM is a bad idea,” he said.


Business involvement

A theme throughout the STEM initiative has been business involvement. Business leaders sit on the STEM Council, and many businesses around the state have become involved in some way, including Principal Financial Group Inc., whose chief information officer, Gary Scholten, was on the Business Record’s STEM roundtable panel late last year. 

Reynolds and Milne both reiterated the importance of business involvement.

Reynolds noted that there are opportunities for businesses to get involved, “just by working with their schools, by offering internships to children, by offering externships to teachers, by letting them spend time in their facility. There’s a lot of ways they can be helpful.”

For his part, Milne isn’t one for sitting on boards, but “as much as they’ll have me, as they’ll invite me to things, I will go.” Dwolla’s director of communications, Jordan Lampe, does serve on the STEM Council.


Leading Nationally & internationally 
     
Other states look to Iowa as an example, Reynolds said. Recently a team from Indiana came to meet with managers of some of the six STEM hubs in the state as well as Jeff Weld, the executive director of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. Also, in February, a group of Japanese professors and educators visited the state. 

Reynolds praised the STEM infrastructure that divides Iowa into six regions, each with its own hub. She also credits the way that the state has been able to develop its “Scale-Up” programs, which take programs that are working in some cities or school districts and make them statewide programs.

“We are a leader in STEM education in Iowa,” she said. “And we like that.”


Heavy growth

STEM programs expanded on by the STEM Council reached about 40,000 students in the 2012-13 school year. This school year, they are expected to reach 100,000 students, Reynolds said.

Also, she said, the state has put metrics in place to measure the success of the initiative. Already, awareness of STEM and test scores have gone up.