What We Didn’t Say in the STEM Playbook

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This is a guest blog post by Tamara L. Goetz, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Utah STEM Action Center.

Everyone loves to tell a good story; and for good reason! It is important to share what has worked and made a difference.  In the recent publication, A State Policymaker’s STEM Playbook, with Education Commission of the States we were given the opportunity to share our successes at the Utah STEM Action Center.

We all know that behind our success there were plenty of missteps, oversights and really bad ideas.  There are some that are painfully obvious and others that are a consequence of our attempts to tackle the unknown; or, as a very wise man, William Shatner, said, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”  (I had to give a head nod to the recent anniversary of Star Trek.  And let’s face it, William Shatner is pure genius.)

In the professional world we call these  “lessons learned.” Behind closed doors we all have our favorite expression to describe those ideas or efforts that did not work.

I wanted to share a few of our “lessons learned” that we did not discuss in Education Commission of the States’ report.  You may find them enlightening, or you may walk away feeling quite smug about having not been as oblivious as myself.  A win either way.

Let’s consider the case of being blessed with a very generous investment by your state.  We take reporting our progress to our legislature very seriously.  However, an early oversight in reporting was failing to recognize that, while data is critical, communicating accountability through the “lens” of a legislator is equally important.  This is very different from reporting out to a federal agency or an academic audience.  Legislators are keenly aware of the fact that they gave you money.  They know that they provided statute that defines how to spend that money.  It is your job to tell them where you spent the tax dollars and what the state is getting for their investment.

Expanding on the funding topic, we knew that we needed to diversify our funding portfolio.  In fact, statute mandates that the STEM Action Center solicit corporate support.  As a state entity, we are allowed to accept and spend donations, but it quickly became very clear to us that this was not sufficient. It is a daunting process to create a 501(c)3, particularly if you are a state agency.  The “lesson learned” here is, just do it.  I cannot stress the importance of starting early. Get the hard things done and out of the way.  There were too many lost opportunities.  It took us two years to reach our goal of a public 501(c)3 and it has changed the conversation.  We are on our way to establishing an endowment.  It feels good.

I would like to shift to programmatic strategy.  Life has been unnecessarily hard on the STEM Action Center due to the nature of the initial projects that were funded.  The initial projects that the Center received funding for were complex, contentious and required new approaches to procurement.  I am not sure that this is always entirely possible, but being more aware of the nature of these projects is good.  It helps to be more intentional with messaging and managing expectations.  It can help to avoid the feeling that you are part of a living Whack-a-Mole game.

Finally, I want to address relationships.  I truly believe that good relationships are a strength of the Utah STEM Action Center.  However, a very wise board member once told me to build relationships with the school district superintendents—No, this was not William Shatner, but that would be very cool.  This board member was correct and I should have listened to him and made this a priority.  In the past year we have worked hard to meet with superintendents and listen to their challenges and needs.  It has made a huge difference. 

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