When Dr. Chad Womack moved his nanobiomolecular startup company NanoVec to Philadelphia in 2006, he was working from an office located in front of University City High School.
Though he was born and raised in Philadelphia, he didn’t know the history of the school. Long drawn to education, he began wondering how the school was impacted by science, technology, education and mathematics (STEM) initiatives.
“The school district was not prepared to address STEM as an initiative that would provide an opportunity for students to have a pathway into college, majoring in STEM, and then into careers,” Womack says.
It wasn’t the first time that he has been involved in the issue.
In 1999, Womack followed a health fellowship at Harvard researching HIV/AIDs to a research position at the National Institutes of Health in Washington D.C. His interest in STEM led him to D.C. Public Schools, where a year later, Arlene Ackerman would resign as Superintendent.
So it was that Ackerman’s departure from the School District of Philadelphia this summer was familiar to him. He was actively working to encourage STEM initiatives in the District, when he wasn’t working with The America21 project.
“Ackerman didn’t want to be bothered with it, but this is very typical of leadership in public education. To them, STEM is this special thing for whiz kids,” he says.
Womack’s The America21 Project is focused on empowering urban centers and communities through STEM education and workforce development, high-growth entrepreneurship and access to capital. With his new venture, he’s still actively engaging the District around STEM priorities.
After the jump, we caught up with Womack about the state of STEM education in Philadelphia.
We’re following reports that less than one percent of the District’s black students graduate college with a STEM-related degree. Given your vantage point, what does that make you think?
At a level where it’s left to a percentage point, you have to accept the null hypthesis. You have to round to zero. It means the School District of Philadelphia doesn’t make a difference in terms of their ability for post-secondary success. In essence, it means you have large swaths of the city that don’t have a bridge for their children into the 21st century.
How do you actionably begin improving these statistics?
One metric of success would be that we need a ten-fold increase. Let’s get that number to 10 percent in next five to 10 years. If Philadelphia is going to transform its economy, we need to ask: ‘What is the place-based value of growing up in the city viewed through the lens of tech-based local development? What is the likelihood of a kid growing up in West Philadelphia, in terms of employment in the technology industry?’
You were involved with a STEM task force at the District under former Superintendent Thomas Brady. Tell us about that.
One of the things that fell out of that was that the School District was not prepared to address STEM as an initiative that would provide an opportunity for students to have a pathway into college majoring in STEM, and then into careers. It wasn’t just a probem with content knowledge, but also skills that are STEM-related that would prepare them for work, like problem-solving, thinking creatively.
And you say that for former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, STEM wasn’t a priority?
She didn’t want to be bothered with it. This is very typical of leadership in public education. It’s this special thing for the whiz kids. They see it as this initiative for the Mastermans and Centrals of the world. It speaks to the mindset of public education and it’s role in preparing kids for the future. Industry has actually been a leader and driver in STEM education and workforce development. They require the talent being produced, so they’ve been saying, ‘you guys need to do a better job because we need highly-skilled workforce.’ This is really about local and national competitiveness on a global scale.
And what are your expectations of new Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery?
In Dr. Nunery, we have someone who does understand STEM. But he’s left with this $600 million hole in his budget. The question becomes ‘where do we get capital to drive STEM initiatives?’
What has to change to address that problem?
People have approached the District because of what they can get out of the relationship, instead of what they can contribute. They should say: ‘what can I do to help build capacity in the District?’