New Jersey STEM Pathways Network builds a unified voice with the long-term vision in mind
With more than ten years of experience under her belt, Kim Case understands that building a unified voice for STEM learning and career pathways in the state is going to take some time.
“It’s a marathon not a sprint,” says Case, executive director of the Research and Development Council of New Jersey and managing partner of the New Jersey STEM Pathways Network (NJSPN). “I’ve seen a lot of good changes over time, but that is the result of regularly reaching out to leaders and keeping them engaged. It is critical to make sure you’re not siloed. You need to be out there and connected with the sense of community in the state. If you do that you’ll see a lot of great things happen.”
In 2014, the NJSPN was formed as a statewide convener of STEM leaders and now works with over 500 public and private entities throughout New Jersey. The state convener manages five STEM learning ecosystems, in addition to working in four key priority areas: teacher recruitment & preparation, workforce development, computer science and early learning.
Changing the conversation
When Case started her work, STEM was still a new acronym for the state.
“At the federal level, the acronym, STEM, had been used for quite some time, but in New Jersey people were still wrapping their heads around the concept, probably because of the lengthy battle about STEM cell research in the state,” says Case. “It has taken time to educate both the general public and our government officials.”
To steward such conversations, Case invites all NJ players to consistent quarterly meetings to learn and present on the work. She ensures meeting agendas are packed with relevant information and expert speakers to make them worth the time and keep leaders coming back.
“The invitations are open to everyone,” she says. “However, we are also strategic on who we invite. No one person is going to have all the answers, so we bring in a team of leaders from across the state to help build the agendas out. That process builds trust, in addition to our authenticity – we truly want to see success for everyone.”
The NJSPN hopes by giving members practical tips and significant information to share with local leaders, it will enable stronger relationships between organizations and policy makers.
Building public awareness through celebration
Building public awareness to support STEM education and workforce development has been a large part of the work over the past five years, including the launch of New Jersey STEM Month. Once a week-long event, the NJSPN now declares the entire month of March NJ STEM Month by gubernatorial proclamation.
Case credits the awareness campaign as one of their biggest successes, with partners around the state providing programming and resources for communities and families. The month concludes with a STEM Showcase in the Statehouse, targeting legislators to better understand STEM in their districts.
“We have seen such growth,” says Case. “When we first started, maybe five legislators would walk the STEM Showcase. In 2018, we had close to 40 legislators join us in Trenton. They spent the morning speaking to students and community leaders, as well as sharing what they learned with us on video.”
Legislative hearings and state budgets
NJ STEM Month’s buzz has resulted in real connections with the legislature. After the March 2019 campaign, NJ ecosystem leaders were invited to a joint hearing for the Assembly Committee to speak about successes and challenges in their STEM work.
Such events prompted an invitation for the NJSPN to submit a proposal for legislative funding. “It was a serendipitous invitation based connections we had made; it wasn’t necessarily the most strategic process, but it goes back to making sure that people know who you are and what you are about. You name will continue to pop up at the table,” she says. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get the funding this time, but I think that funding will ultimately come as we continue to put strategy behind our efforts. All in all, it was certainly a learning process for us – we will hit the ground running again this year. It’s not going to stop us.”
Future strategies for the NJSPN include the prioritization of family and community engagement with legislators, and deepening the existing connections with the Department of Education, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the governor’s office.
“State departments certainly know the work that we’re doing. We are trying to really make those connections to support one another so that we can see greater outcomes for students and learners in STEM,” Case says.
You need a champion
The NJSPN began with generous contributions from the Overdeck Family Foundation and has found a champion in its co-chair Laura Overdeck, co-chair of the Overdeck Family Foundation and founder of Bedtime Math.
“You need a champion in the state to support this work. And support is not just financial, but someone able to use their voice,” says Case.
With direction laid out by another founding champion, former State Secretary of the Office of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks, Case also understands the importance of her own leadership. She has been charged to bring the entire state together – north, central and south Jersey – to create one unified voice for STEM.
“New Jersey can be very provincial, so you need someone to lead the charge and find balance in all voices are being heard,” she says. “We do that at all levels, including the legislature to make those connections across the state. We have decided there will be no more random acts of STEM.”
Highlighting bright spots
The Delran STEM Ecosystem Alliance is one of the five NJ ecosystems, and has been a bright spot for the NJSPN to highlight community engagement in the state with legislators. Partnerships between the school district, local community college, business and out of school providers has concluded in the development of a digital and fabrication lab that will train students for future STEM jobs and spark inspiration with greater community use.
“Delran has thought strategically about leveraging public awareness and including their community in STEM learning,” says Case. “They bring diverse families within their own community to join the planning process and include all stakeholder voices at the table.”
Delran’s STEM work has been highlighted multiple times in NJ media outlets and the ecosystem has attracted influential policy leaders to their region, including a visit from the state’s first lady and remarks from state Commission of Education, a state senator and two assemblymen at the ceremonial launch of their innovation lab.
Amplifying the unified voice
A newly formed Strategic Advisory Board is now working to magnify the unified voice of the NJSPN.
“It is critical that the thought leadership of our business community is heard,” says Case.
“The NJSPN is a public-private partnership and its important that business make long-term investments in STEM for the future. We haven’t seen true partnership at the table yet, but we think the Strategic Advisory Board is the right step to take.”
- Create a unified voice to amplify your message. This means bringing all stakeholders and voices into the conversation.
- Find a champion for the work. One with both financial and leadership influence.
- Stay consistent. The work takes time and it is important to remember that large systems change is a marathon not a sprint.
The New Jersey STEM Pathways Network, a strategic public-private alliance, was established in 2014 by the New Jersey Office of the Secretary of Higher Education to define and guide a STEM vision for cradle to career pathways in New Jersey. The NJSPN is chaired by Laura Overdeck, Chair of the Overdeck Family Foundation and Founder of Bedtime Math and is managed by the Research & Development Council of New Jersey.
The NJSPN aims to attract, cultivate and retain a 21st century workforce in New Jersey, ensuring the state remains a top global competitor in STEM industry and continues its rich history of innovation.
NJSPN Vision: For New Jersey to attract, cultivate and retain a 21st century workforce that is engaged and supported through statewide alignment of public and private STEM educational resources, ensuring that the state remains globally competitive in STEM industries and continues its rich history of innovation.
NJSPN Mission: The NJSPN defines and guides a statewide STEM vision for cradle to career formal and informal learning opportunities that strengthen academic skills and inspire students; facilitates research and recommendations on STEM talent pipeline needs and barriers to success; and exposes students to the many educational pathways, experiences, and professionals that can prepare them for STEM degree programs and careers in New Jersey.
NJ STEM Learning Ecosystems
- Delran STEM Ecosystem Alliance in Burlington County
- Liberty STEM Alliance in Hudson County
- Hunterdon, Somerset, Mercer Tri-County STEM Coalition (HSMC)
- Newark STEAM Coalition in Newark
- South Jersey STEM & Innovation Partnership in Camden, Cumberland and Salem Counties