Put on the Hard Hat: A Campus Funder Gives Big for Experiential STEM Learning

As some donors see it, students will need more than classroom-based STEM education to get ahead in a competitive global workforce. Schools should be providing a more holistic and experiential approach. That's the message of an $8 million gift from the Bethesda, Maryland-based Clark Charitable Foundation to expand an engineering scholars program at George Washington University (GW).

Check out the scope of the Clark Engineering Scholars program to see what I mean. It prepares future leadership positions through a "range of experiences that include an annual leadership boot camp, a semester abroad, one-on-one mentorship with top alumni, internships, research opportunities, and community service options."

The program began in 2011 with an $8 million gift from the late A. James Clark, a GW trustee emeritus and the founder of Clark Enterprises, an engineering firm whose university contributions include the construction of campus facilities as well as volunteer leadership and philanthropic support. 

The foundation's other grantmaking areas include veterans issues and education, and community efforts benefiting disadvantaged populations in the D.C. area.

It makes sense that the foundation would have a hand in creating a more experiential and hands-on STEM curriculum. The Clark portfolio includes stabilized assets totaling 3,000,000 square feet of office space, 5,000 residential units and 900 hotel rooms. Projects under development include 350,000 square feet of future office, 3,000 future residential units, and 400 future hotel rooms.

That's a lot of potential for experiential learning and developing critical "soft" skills like negotiation, critical thinking and networking.

Viewed through this lens, the foundation's commitment reminds me of January's $100 million gift from Silicon Valley real estate developer John A. Sobrato and his wife, Susan, for a new center dedicated to STEM education at Santa Clara University. Both gifts feed into what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls a philanthropy-fueled "education-to-work-to-life-long-skill-building pipeline."

Along similar lines, we've covered a slew of grants from a diverse array of funders for "career-to-class" initiatives that seek to ensure students are connecting to the world of work before they leave campus. 

RelatedThe Real World Express: Behind Another Big Campus "Career Readiness" Gift

Sixteen alumni Clark scholars have already graduated and entered graduate programs or have begun working in the government and in top engineering and technology firms.

GW provided an example of the program in action. Junior Colby Bott, a civil engineering major, cited the value of on-site collaboration when navigating a tricky design project. During his freshman year, he toured a campus building that was under construction. It was his first site tour, and he was able to see the building process firsthand, review the plans, and ask questions of its designers.

"Those sorts of experiences can set you on your career path," he said. It's also the sort of experience you can't get sitting in a classroom.

The lesson here is simple. STEM skills remain ascendant, and sometimes students need to drink a Red Bull and code through the night. But the Clark Foundation's gift suggests that sometimes students need to turn off the computer and put on a hard hat.