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Editorial Lauds UVM’s STEM Initiative as an Imperative for the State

Editor and co-publisher of the St. Albans Messenger Emerson Lynn makes a powerful case for the university’s planned $100 million investment in STEM, arguing that its focus on excellence makes UVM a stronger partner in achieving the economic development necessary to sustain Vermont. “Is it expensive?” Lynn writes. “Compared to what? Failing?”
Read the piece, reprinted here with permission from the Messenger:

Messenger logoUVM’s $100M STEM investment & state’s future

As we ponder the fate of IBM and its 4,000 employees thought should also be applied to what it is that Vermont can offer which would serve as the catalyst for future growth and economic stability.

In a word, the answer is education.

The best example of that catalyst is the news earlier this year that the University of Vermont would be investing over $100 million in its “Stem Initiative.” It’s the largest capital investment the school has ever assumed, and it’s targeted to match the school’s need to step up its game with the state’s need to have UVM be a better, stronger partner in achieving the state’s economic development goals.

Although UVM is a bit tardy, the investment could hardly be more appropriate. The complexion of tomorrow’s workplace will reflect a need for today’s students to have firmer understandings of the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, etc. The sooner the investments are made, the better Vermont’s prospects will be.

As with any building project, there will be those who doubt its wisdom. The STEM grouping doesn’t represent a large sector of the student body. To the contrary, STEM graduates constitute about 10 percent of UVM’s student body.

Why, then, should the school invest so much in so few?

Three key reasons: First, it’s the STEM discipline that has the greatest job/economic development potential for Vermont; Second, UVM lags other public research universities in the facilities offered for STEM programs. Third, the STEM curriculum is one of the fastest growing. If UVM does not make the investment there is every reason to believe it will also lose in the increasingly competitive race to recruit from a declining student base.

It was this understanding that four years ago prompted UVM to embark upon its spires of excellence initiative. To succeed, or to flourish, universities can no longer hobble along content to be mediocre. UVM picked three areas in which to excel: Complex Systems, Food Systems and Neuroscience, Behavior and Health. All three have a strong STEM overlap.

The $100 million investment in STEM is what could accelerate UVM’s ability to follow through on its mission. As the state’s only research university, it’s imperative that it be encouraged to do so. It’s this level commitment that perhaps will allow Vermont and the IBMs of the world to find new and exciting ways to partner. We can do more than simply manufacture chips. But we must show the resolve to invest in these sorts of visions and the world must see that resolve.

The STEM investment is also much more than it first appears. It’s not an academic pursuit limited only to those students proficient in chemistry, physics or other high level math and science interests. It’s a more inclusive way of defining what a comprehensive college education should reflect.

Just as engineering students should have a foundational understanding of the arts and humanities, so, too, should liberal arts students have a passing understanding of the physical sciences. That’s the complete education that students pay for, and should expect. Not being able to offer that marginalizes the value of the institution.

We have made this argument for years. Vermont is disproportionately dependent on its educational establishment. It’s our second largest industry with UVM itself pushing a billion dollars annually through our economy.

What we have failed to do is to leverage UVM’s potential to meet the state’s economic development needs. The stronger UVM is, the more the potential leverage. The STEM investment focuses on the excellence necessary to build that strength.

Is it expensive?

Compared to what? Failing?

Today’s students [and their parents] have almost an unlimited number of choices as to which school provides the best education. The competition between schools has become intense. Those who fall back, lose.

Whether or not we lose IBM, or see a reduction in force, or a change in mission, the conversation is one that should reflect on how it is that we continue to move forward, that we figure out how to develop new relationships with old partners.

That can only happen if we continue to demonstrate the excellence of Vermont’s educational system – writ large. UVM’s $100 million investment is one that has the potential for a decades’ long return. It should be one supported by all Vermonters. The alternative is unthinkable.

Read more about the planned STEM initiative on the UVM Foundation's website.

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