In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama issued a call to get 100,000 excellent STEM teachers in American classrooms within 10 years. Talia Milgrom-Elcott answered it.

While the job opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, also known as STEM, continue to grow, the number of students studying those fields at the college level continues to shrink. Employers and pundits alike lament this shortage and its effect on the U.S. economy, present and future. One essential step toward correcting it, according to the bipartisan Council of Advisors on Science and Technology: Find teachers who can get kids excited about STEM.

Milgrom-Elcott, a Harvard Law School grad who was working as a program officer at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, answered Obama’s call by co-founding 100Kin10, a network that she says “coordinates and accelerates the work of best-in-class organizations from across sectors to respond to the nation’s need for 100,000 excellent STEM teachers.”

These organizations — more than 230 partners that include academic institutions, nonprofits, foundations, companies and government agencies, among others — contribute to the goal of 100,000 excellent STEM teachers in three ways, according to 100Kin10:

  1. Increasing supply. Partners pledge to recruit more teachers with strong STEM backgrounds and better prepare them for the classroom.
  2. Retaining talent. Keeping excellent STEM teachers from jumping ship to better-paying jobs outside of education is a key part of 100Kin10. According to its website, participating organizations strive to transform “how STEM teachers are hired, supported, and developed, so they continue to improve and inspire more students.”
  3. Growing the movement. Partners work to change policies that influence STEM education. They also help spread awareness and contribute funds.

In an interview on Inflection Point, Lauren Schiller asked Milgrom if adding 100,000 STEM teachers by 2021 was a realistic goal. She replied without hesitation:

We started this to see if this was possible. Could we coordinate and mobilize all different types of organizations, from Google and Intel, to the American Museum of Natural History, to public school districts, like L.A. unified, and New York public schools, to small universities and large organizations. Can we mobilize those organizations to come together toward a shared goal and each of them contribute something unique from their own resources, their own assets to this goal? Not only had we had this amazing demand from organizations that have been applying – three times as many as have gotten in — but we had 6,000 teachers in our first year, and 6,000 teachers in the second, and then 8,000 in each of the next two. We’re at 28,000 teachers in our first four years, and the numbers continue to grow. We’re seeing the pathway all the way to 100,000 in 10. 

So what are schools and school districts doing at a practical level to see the benefits of all of this work?

First of all, says Milgrom-Elcott, they’re hiring differently — finding ways to give bonuses, housing and other frontline bonuses among them, to STEM teachers when they join. Partners also support them by providing master and peer mentors and access to ongoing professional learning.

The network also helps teachers stay connected to the practical applications of the subjects they teach. “They’re giving them opportunities to reconnect to the wonder of the STEM field as grownups, by giving them chances over the summer to work in labs or with high-tech companies where STEM is living and breathing full-time,” says Milgrom-Elcott.

For Milgrom-Elcott, answering Obama’s call was something she felt she needed to do personally.

“I had an experience in listening to this call from the president — which was initially a call for 10,000 teachers in two years before it became a State of the Union call for 100,000 in 10 years — of sitting at that time at a national foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, with a portfolio focused on teaching, and a more recent focus on STEM,” she says.

“If we don’t do it in 10 years, the problem will only have gotten worse,” she recalls thinking to herself at the time. “The urgent and necessary call for change was doable. This is something that wasn’t beyond our capacity to do. He wasn’t asking us to put a school on the moon. He was asking us to mobilize teachers to help teach our kids. It should be basic to the functioning of any civilization.”

If this was doable, then why wasn’t anyone doing it yet?

“We’re inured to these calls,” Milgrom says. “They’re just calls that we tune out from our elected officials because nobody ever says, ‘I said this thing and now we’ve checked that thing off.’ That never happens. It never leads to a mobilization, and those two things sat with me. I thought, ‘Well, here is something that we are — I am — positioned to do.’ I sort of looked to the left and saw no one doing anything and I looked to the right and saw no one doing anything.”

At first, Milgrom tackled the challenge while still working at the Carnegie Corporation, building the teaching program out as a side piece of her other duties there. By the end of 2013, it was ready to spin off into its own entity, of which she became the leader.

When asked why she, a Harvard Law School grad, felt so compelled to start 100Kin10, Milgrom-Elcott references the ideals instilled in her from childhood. “My mom was a very early woman rabbi — among the first in the country,” she says. “The values of responsibility, of seeing injustice, or seeing the need for change and stepping up, were required to what it meant to be a human being and a citizen in my house.”

Building a successful venture like 100Kin10 takes dedication and agility. Schiller asked Milgrom-Elcott what’s made her organization so nimble. “We try to be super honest with ourselves and with the work,” she said. Although her team makes sure to celebrate its victories, she says they’re careful not to be too content. She likens her work to climbing a mountain. “You get to what you thought was the top and you realize there’s actually another peak ahead of you that you hadn’t been able to see from the bottom. Once you see it, it’s on you to climb there.”

One key to the organization’s success, says Milgrom, is giving team members regular time to break from their day-to-day work to explore new ideas. “It can’t be something that’s on your task list,” she says. “It gives people a chance to read, gives people a chance to go down rabbit holes and come back up again and go down other ones, to experiment with an idea, to write something, to just go totally off the reservation on something pretty wild that you would never have the time or permission to do in a normal work day. That has been super nourishing for the team, and I think led to all kinds of ideas that have yielded innovations and approaches for us.”

The effort has some major heavy hitters backing it. To date, partners have included Google, Chevron, Girl Scouts, Intel, Sesame Workshop, and the American Museum of National History, and the organization recently announced a $1.7 million investment in STEM education in the state of New York. That money will be distributed through 10 New York partners, including the NYC Department of Education, the Intrepid Museum, and Girls Who Code, who will use the funds to improve engineering and computer science education in schools across the state.

Want to learn more about Milgrom-Elcott and other inspiring women? Follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

Lauren Schiller is the host of Inflection Point, a public radio show and podcast featuring conversations with women changing the status quo, produced at KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco.

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