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Friday Letter 2015-06-12:
How UI Fuels Success in STEM Education

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FRIDAY LETTER: How UI Fuels Success in STEM Education
Dear Friends,

As Idaho’s leading, national research institution, the University of Idaho helps drive economic growth by taking on research in key areas and by preparing graduates for success in science, technology, education and math (STEM). As part of that mission, this week we were pleased to bring scientist, entrepreneur and policy expert Dr. Ed Penhoet to UI Boise. Dr. Penhoet is the founder of Chiron Corporation, a biotechnology company that developed the world’s first recombinant DNA-based vaccine (for Hepatitis B), isolated Hepatitis C and developed the test used to prevent contamination of blood transfusions with that virus. I was privileged to work at Chiron in 1985 and 1986. It was a formative time for me as a researcher, but the experience also provided valuable lessons on how one’s work can have an impact that benefits the world.

Dr. Penhoet’s distinguished resume also includes service as dean of the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health; leadership of the Gordon and Betty Moore (Intel) Foundation; and success as a venture capitalist. He is also an appointee to President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST. That group, comprised of some of our nation’s leading scientists and engineers, reports to the president with recommendations on how science, technology and innovation can inform policy and contribute to a robust economy. PCAST has published two reports on the role of STEM education to ensure our nation’s long-term economic success.

Dr. Penhoet addressed education and community leaders during the closing event Tuesday for the UI-Micron STEM education conference. He described PCAST’s recommendations for improving STEM education, lauding the K-12 educators at the conference for their efforts, encouraging them to continue to work on improving math preparation and science engagement, and reminding the university community of our responsibility to keep engaging students after they enroll.

On Wednesday in the Zions Bank meeting room, Dr. Penhoet gave a keynote speech to an audience of business and community leaders about developing our biotechnology industry. He drew on his experience with Chiron and with UC Berkeley, emphasizing to the audience the importance of academia’s engagement with industry, from research grants to workforce development to business incubation. Within the last year, UI has changed its approach to intellectual property and facilitated such interactions. We will continue to seek other ways, throughout the state, to engage with industry.

Biotechnology is just one example of a potential growth industry for Idaho and the nation, a future UI is forging through education and research. Successful economic development requires a broad range of skills and degrees. Over the last two days in Boise we highlighted STEM education (though we also saw a great example of UI’s extraordinary business education). Preparing STEM graduates begins with engaging K-12 experiences and continues through doctoral degrees, and UI is involved in all phases of STEM education. Dynamic STEM learning experiences provided to K-12 students include our Engineering Design Expo, the McCall Outdoor Science School and many more. Once students come to UI, they find great STEM courses and the opportunity to work in research labs. UI’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant, led by Trish Hartzell, aims to enhance the engagement and interest of students in introductory science courses, a key PCAST recommendation. UI leads Idaho in producing STEM doctoral degrees, as well. But STEM graduates alone cannot fuel a business. At Wednesday’s breakfast, Mario Reyes, Dean of the College of Business and Economics, shared a great video of a recent “elevator pitch” competition that is part of entrepreneurship education, earning applause from the audience and from Dr. Penhoet.

The Micron Foundation has joined UI to support a STEM Educational Research Initiative, exploring the complex factors that spur interest and learning in the fields. We must use that knowledge to find innovative ways to increase STEM performance and competitiveness and to increase enrollment at UI. Micron’s STEM conference included speakers, presentations and the participation of Dr. Penhoet. That work dovetailed with Wednesday’s State Board of Education STEM summit, which brought together stakeholders from education and industry to discuss how we can move STEM forward in our K-12 system.

UI also shapes the future by leading the state in research, doubling the research expenditures of all other universities combined. We also head several statewide research initiatives, including the IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, or INBRE, and two COBRE projects from the National Institutes of Health, all very relevant to the biotechnology industry.

With support from the state and our K-12 and higher education partners, UI is a leader in STEM education and research for our state. Idaho’s future demands our excellence in these areas, and consultation with thought leaders like Dr. Penhoet helps UI rise to the challenge of leading Idaho forward.

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Go Vandals!

Chuck Staben
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