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National Math and Science Initiative CEO Talks Spreading STEM Education & What’s Inspired Him Along the Way

The National Math and Science Initiative already has made great strides spreading science, technology, engineering, and math curriculum to thousands of classrooms across the country.

Now, under the leadership of former astronaut and physiologist Bernard Harris Jr., NMSI has partnered with Sylvan Learning to bring STEM education to Sylvan campuses nationwide.

Former astronaut Bernard Harris (right) signs an agreement with Sylvan Learning Centers. [Courtesy Photo]

Dallas-based NMSI was founded in 2007 to encourage STEM education in young people, particularly women and minority groups, by providing teacher training, establishing programs, and encouraging the next generation of teachers by creating a STEM pipeline in universities.

Harris, who took over as NMSI CEO last fall, was the first African-American to walk in space. He logged 550 hours there while studying the effects of space on humans and other organisms.

Former astronaut Bernard Harris (right) during one of his missions to the International Space Station. [Courtesy Photo]

Dallas Innovates talked with Harris recently about the partnership with Sylvan, the importance of STEM education, and what it’s like walking in space.

You’ve been with NMSI since the beginning 11 years ago. Did you ever envision yourself in the role of CEO?

Being on the founding board has been great. Watching it grow has been tremendous. We had tremendous leadership through the years. So I’m very honored that the board asked me to step in as CEO. I didn’t see myself in this role, but this is not foreign to me. I’ve been involved in providing STEM education for years.

How has NMSI’s role changed over the last decade?

The major thing is a decade ago it was finally recognized by the nation that we had an issue with our kids being ready for jobs where technology is at the heart of it. There was a call to action. That was the reason the National Math and Science Initiative was begun to address that.

We’ve started programs that have been proven to positively impact communities across the counties. The thing I’m most proud of is the expansion of our programs all across the country. Over 2 million students, 50,000 teachers, over 1,000 schools we’ve impacted. We’re in 44 universities working on that teacher pipeline.

The higher paying jobs are the STEM-related jobs. There are jobs in technology and engineering.

What can be done to better prepare our STEM workforce of tomorrow? How do we encourage young people, especially women and minorities, to enter STEM fields?

We have to start early for sure and that’s what our programs are all about. We start in third grade. We use professional development for teachers to help them more effectively handle STEM education and programs. It’s important with that age group that you connect the dots for students and you get them engaged.

It’s OK to be a geek. The innovators running these companies, they’re all geeks — geeks rule the world.

Girls and minorities sometimes are not encouraged to go into STEM. We have to change that mindset. It’s OK to go into these STEM fields. This is sort of a joke that I use when I talk with young kids: It’s OK to be a geek. The innovators running these companies, they’re all geeks — geeks rule the world.

We have to inspire them, aspire them, and give them the tools necessary so they can be competitive.

Bernard Harris poses with young learners at the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp. [Courtesy Photo]

As we get more technological and we have more AI, robotics, the workforce is going to change and it’s going to have to change its skill. They’ll go from building things to actually running computers that control the robot.

What does the new partnership with Sylvan mean for NMSI and the children who attend?

Sylvan has a number of centers across the nation. We see this partnership as a way to increase our reach. It’s another platform to deliver our content to more students. We both agreed that our priority is to reach into those economically disadvantaged areas.

We know for sure what we want to do is to come up with ways to implement more robust STEM programming that can be delivered in their centers. Also, they have content that they’ve developed that we can utilize in some of the schools that we work with.

There’s more to come.