There is a desperate need for improved STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – education in America.  A troubling STEM achievement gap is growing between US K-12 students and students from other developed countries just at the time when jobs in STEM fields are growing and our economic competitiveness increasingly depends on skills in these areas.  In Boston, as in other urban school districts, the STEM achievement gap is particularly acute, with just 10 percent of 8th graders scoring proficient or advanced on the MCAS science assessment compared with 39 percent statewide.

Last November, the White House launched the “Educate to Innovate” campaign to lift American students from the middle of the pack to first in the world in science and math achievement.  Earlier this month, as part of the White House initiative, Massachusetts was awarded a $1.5 million grant from NASA to fund summer learning projects for underrepresented and underperforming middle school students in STEM fields.  Meanwhile, Gov. Patrick announced in January the creation of a STEM Coordinating Council to “increase student interest and achievement in STEM fields.”

While everyone agrees on the urgent need to close the STEM achievement gap, how do we do it? We believe professionals from research universities and industry who work in STEM fields represent a vast – and largely untapped – resource that could be an important part of the answer.

Local companies are concerned about building a pipeline of qualified employees and increasing the level of innovation needed to compete in the global economy.  Many see the opportunity to educate students for future career opportunities as a way to contribute to the community, while helping their firms to be more innovative and economically competitive.

In March, a group of approximately 150 business, nonprofit and education leaders from across Massachusetts met at Citizen Schools’ headquarters in Boston with Kumar Garg from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to discuss the STEM challenge facing the Commonwealth. The group wrestled with new ideas that would invite a diverse range of adults to teach different material in different ways at different times during a child’s day.

One big idea from the day centered on who is delivering instruction.  What if, instead of relying only on the 110,000 professional science teachers in the US, we found structured ways to involve the 5 million professional scientists and engineers who are interested in teaching what they know and love?  By engaging more academics and professionals in teaching math and science, we can leverage an enormous talent pool, while exposing students directly to STEM careers to stimulate interest and ensure learning is hands-on and relevant.

According to a 2009 MIT survey, nearly two-thirds of teenagers said that they may be discouraged from pursuing STEM careers because of two main factors: 1) they do not know anyone who works in these fields; and 2) they do not understand what people in these fields do.  How do we hook kids on the promising STEM fields while increasing their achievement in math and science?  We think a promising approach is to harness the energy, skills and resources of the business sector and our universities.

Imagine students having exposure to engineers designing solar cars in a research lab at Raytheon, or helping design video games at MIT?  Independent of ability, early interest is a strong predictor of a science career, and a traditional classroom setting is not the only place to inspire that interest.  Indeed, 75 percent of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences have said that their interest in science was first generated outside of school.  Why not get kids more fully engaged with real world application of learning and expose them to the diverse array of people involved in STEM innovation?

One way to connect students to STEM experts would be to leverage the volunteer management capacity of nonprofits like Citizen Schools. Founded in Boston 15 years ago and now operating in 18 school districts in Massachusetts and across the country, Citizen Schools has recruited approximately 25,000 professionals nationwide, including many scientists and other STEM professionals from companies like EMC and Cubist Pharmaceuticals, to teach middle school students, in afterschool programs or extended-day school initiatives.  The organization partners with middle schools to bring more learning time to students in need and drive up their academic achievement through hands-on learning projects.  These 10-week apprenticeships are taught by volunteer experts who teach students, side-by-side with professional educators, about new careers and fields through real-world experiences.

We need to find ways to engage more STEM professionals during out-of-school time and in partnership with teachers during traditional school day hours. As a first step, Citizen Schools has begun training science and math teachers on what the organization has learned about engaging professionals to teach students.  By sharing best practices and practical tips for teachers interested in bringing scientists into the classroom, the organization is beginning to work with teachers to enhance their lessons in a meaningful way.

Long-time Citizen Schools volunteer David Mantus, a vice president at Lexington-based Cubist Pharmaceuticals, has participated in training sessions to share his ideas on engaging scientists. David, who has a PhD in chemistry from Cornell, grew up launching rockets in the backyard with his father, an aerospace engineer.  He’s now teaching rocket science to Boston public schools students through the Citizen Schools program.  His deep knowledge of and passion for science translates into exciting, content-rich science activities for students – the types of activities that can spark real passion in students.  He is seeing real impact in the classroom and his latest passion is sharing his experience with teachers and other scientists in an effort to get more scientists connected to kids.

In order for that to happen, scientists will need support from employers. Citizen Schools will be recruiting up to 1,200 STEM professionals to teach apprenticeships over the next four years.  One critical aspect to engaging those STEM professionals in teaching students and serving as STEM role models for youth via Citizen Schools or other organizations  is support and flexibility in the workplace.  By allowing employees volunteer hours or flextime to work with schools and nonprofit organizations, companies give employees an opportunity to give back to the community.  At the same time, they are directly impacting an issue that hits the company’s bottom line – by building a robust pipeline of qualified future employees.

Pat Kirby is executive director of Citizen Schools Massachusetts. Michael Bonney is president and CEO of Cubist Pharmaceuticals.