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Building STEAM

Director's Notes

Perhaps the holiday season is a good time to remind ourselves how fortunate we are that Wisconsin continues to have a wealth of luminaries who help improve the quality of our lives by bringing high-paying jobs and economic growth to the state. It is these great minds that in turn attract other great minds, making this state a place for research, artistic expression, and creative solutions to the challenges of our time. This relationship between innovative research and the state's future economic health was never more evident than at the annual Wisconsin Academy Fellows induction program and back-to-back Academy Evenings stem cell events this fall (both programs can be viewed online here).

The keynote speaker for day one of our Academy Evenings stem cell event was famed stem cell researcher and director of the Morgridge Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. James Thomson. Thomson, named one of 100 people in Time magazine's "Most influential People in the World," was celebrated for his derivation of human embryonic stem cells ten years ago. This discovery was noted by Science magazine as one of the 129 top milestones in the history of science for the past 2,600 years. Of Thomson's work with stem cells, the director of the National Institutes of Health said that "it is not too unrealistic to say this research has the potential to revolutionize the practice of medicine and improve the quality and length of life. There is almost no realm of medicine that might not be touched by this innovation." Added Leo Furcht of the University of Minnesota, "It was a monumental research discovery and was a giant step forward placing Wisconsin at the forefront of the world." And now, a new study led by UW-Madison scientist Junying Yu and conducted in Thomson's lab is pioneering the genetic reprogramming of human skin cells to create cells indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells, thereby removing some of the ethical objections arising from earlier stem cell research. As a Northstar Economics market study found, stem cells are big business and a research beacon in Wisconsin: the annual state economic impact of human embryonic stem cell research and commercial activity in FY 2007 was $44.5 million, supporting 646 high-paying technical jobs.

What makes this state and our country a leading economic power is our ideas-ideas nurtured by access to an outstanding system of public and private education. In a recent New York Times editorial, David Brooks reminded us of how our "ferocious belief that people have the power to transform their own lives" drives our unparalleled commitment to education, hard work, and economic freedom. Yet, in January 2006, the National Academy of Sciences issued an alarming report on the decline of the nation's math and science education. The National Academy concluded that America's competitiveness in the world required scientific and engineering prowess to create high-quality jobs for Americans and to respond to the nation's need for clean, affordable, and reliable energy. The report also called for an ambitious national program to retrain the current teacher corps and attract tens of thousands of new math and science teachers into the profession.

So what can we as a state do to ensure that we can compete successfully in the 21st-century arena of science and technology? A number of initiatives are underway across Wisconsin to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education at both the K-12 (Project Lead the Way, for example) and higher-education levels. These initiatives, as well as others that promote problem solving through the arts and creativity, will be the subject of a series of "Building STEAM" articles in Wisconsin People & Ideas over the course of the next year. In this issue you will read about STEPS (Science, Technology, and Engineering Preview Summer Camp) at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. The program encourages young women to enter technology and engineering fields, and the first program graduates, who are just now entering the workforce, prove that science education benefits the individual, the state, and the country.

So please share your knowledge of exemplary STEAM programs and projects in your region. We look forward to sharing best practices for attracting students into these fields, for fostering professional development for educators, and for keeping graduates in Wisconsin to meet workforce needs. Together, we can make this state and country better by giving support to these programs. Here's to your undiminished health, wealth, and wisdom in the New Year.

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Margaret Lewis was the executive director of the Wisconsin Academy from 2007 to 2011. For twelve years she served as Assistant, Associate and Acting Vice-President of University Relations for the University of Wisconsin System.

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