U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) is the first woman to chair the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in its two-century history.  Last month she took to the Senate floor to argue for adoption of the Endless Frontier Act (subsequently renamed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021) with its proposed $10.4 billion allocation for STEM education.  In her view, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs are key to America’s economic future.

"You think we've funded STEM?  We haven't funded STEM,” Cantwell insisted.  “We still need to build the pipeline in our K-12 system so that we are putting more people into the pipeline, but hopefully with the STEM dollars here we will be creating a new workforce for the innovation we are trying to chase with the investments of these dollars.”   After she and her colleagues looked at who was enrolled in STEM programs, “we were just astonished.  So few women and minorities in STEM fields.  So few.  So the underlying bill … creates a diversity office for the first time over at NSF [National Science Foundation] so they can focus on this issue.”   STEM education can't be just a passive thing, Cantwell said.  “We can't just put more dollars out for STEM education.  If we want to diversify in the sciences, we have to have a very, very aggressive approach."

The University of Minnesota has been actively engaged in seeking to diversify the biomedical sciences and engineering through the Institute for Engineering in Medicine’s INSPIRE program.  INSPIRE is designed to advance IEM’s mission of inspiring eighth grade through junior college students towards pursuing STEM careers in biomedicine and healthcare delivery.  Medical School Dean Jakub Tolar recently interviewed INSPIRE co-directors Rhonda Franklin, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Christopher Pennell, associate professor of laboratory medicine and pathology.  Here is an edited version of the “Inspiring Students Toward STEM Careers” interview.


Jakub Tolar:  Joining me today are Drs. Rhonda Franklin and Chris Pennell who are the inaugural recipients of the IEM Abbott Professorships in Innovative Education.  They are also co-directors of the INSPIRE program, which is designed – hence the title – to inspire students from middle school to junior college towards future careers in STEM.  These efforts are critically important to recruit and empower tomorrow’s leaders, and to explore new answers in health, in engineering, and in medicine.  Can you tell me about the work you are doing to engage students of diverse backgrounds to pursue science and engineering careers in medicine?

Rhonda Franklin:  We have been putting a lot of thought into what would make difficult topics like science and engineering interesting to people.  The ideas around the types of applications that medicine explores that tend to touch everyday lives really require participation.  We’ve been thinking a lot about team science and team approaches and the fact that it requires to you to bring different experts together in order to learn from the various perspectives and gain insights into how to address the problem.  Because of that you need a diversity of ideas and perspectives.  So that’s a really nice way to engage students from a variety of backgrounds – to make them feel connected to the work.  A big piece of our objective is to figure out how we can reduce inequities among the different people who are new to the table.  How do you make them feel included as well in this conversation?  We’ve been meeting with a number of people in different communities on campus or in the community who work with diverse students to try to understand what they know and what they’ve learned from their efforts to bring to the development of this program.  Lastly, we understand that public awareness is extremely important.  And so in order for us to do that, part of our effort these last couple years is to think about how can we identify ambassadors who can be a voice for us but also be a conduit to the students of interest because of the trust that exists between them and the students, and we are the strangers in this new experience.  Hopefully, by borrowing their trust, being worthy of borrowing and using that trust, we can then become trustful allies to the students of interest.

Jakub Tolar:  What kind of response have you received from students who pursue these STEM pathways?

Christopher Pennell:  We’ve had for the last three years an annual INSPIRE conference that’s been held on campus except for last year.  It’s attracted some 350 students from around the state including students from Greater Minnesota.  In 2020 we had a Mini-Medical School that focused on cutting-edge topics in cancer therapy, so we converted that to online courses.  We’ve done the same things for the U’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic from both the engineering and medical point of view, and we converted those talks to online courses.  We’ve tried to take the expertise that exists here and translate it into a form that would be useful for both teachers and student.  The responses that we’ve got have been really strong and powerful.

Rhonda Franklin:  Just recently one of the students who lives in rural Minnesota had indicated to one of their mentors that because they had participated in activities through INSPIRE they decided to attend the University of Minnesota.  And they had opportunities to go elsewhere….  It was really encouraging to see this exposure that we’re providing students gives them an opportunity to see that what they’re interested in is being done here, and that this endeavor … is offering clarity that may have not been there otherwise.


The U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2021 that includes $10.4 billion in STEM program funding is a $250 billion bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Senate majority leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Todd Young (R-IN) to counter the rise of China in research and development of advanced emerging technologies.  Following the bill’s Senate passage in early June, Senator Cantwell, the floor manager of the legislation who championed its STEM education funding, released the following statement:  “America is at our best when we are innovating, competing and exploring.  Today’s Senate vote is a major step towards building the R&D capacity we need to seize the promise of an Information Age. This bipartisan vote is a huge boost to our innovation ecosystem that will help us keep pace with our competitors.”