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Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: 3M

From the Strib:

3Mscientiests.jpg

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

3M Research Specialist Vivek Bharti worked with student Huava Xiong with what he learned interning in the adhesives department at the 3M headquarters. The company is making strides to replenish the supply of scientists, which it needs for product innovation. They teach classes two times a week to students in the St. Paul public school district.

Scientists can't simply be hired, they must be created, and leaders from President Obama to state CEOs say investing in science and math programs early is key. 3M already is there.

After donning a navy lab coat, Huava Xiong moves through a 3M Co. lab like an old pro as he cuts strips of pressure-sensitive adhesives for testing.

Despite his age, 18, the spiky-haired senior is at home in the lab, part of the manufacturer's sprawling headquarters campus in Maplewood.

Xiong, who's planning to attend Carleton or Macalester in the fall, is among a few dozen high school students from St. Paul public schools who've been chosen to learn about science and math directly from 3M's engineers and scientists. Twice a week, they attend classes at 3M for the entire spring semester.

Even as corporations, including 3M, cut thousands of jobs, leaders are worried about the workforces of tomorrow, which studies show will increasingly need to have science and technical skills.

"You have to get to kids early," said Fred Palensky, 3M's chief technology officer.

"I was in grade school when Sputnik was launched" by the Soviet Union, said Palensky, a chemist. That launch ignited a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Palensky recalled the American culture was one that "motivated so many students at that time to think of science and engineering as a profession."

The success of 3M, Minnesota's largest manufacturing company, hinges on its ability to continually invent new products through technological innovation. Bottom line: It needs trained, creative scientists and engineers.

"We need a constant flow of that talent into our organization," Palensky said.

So 3M puts its dollars where its needs are. The 3M Foundation contributed about $20 million last year to education programs, with most of them focusing on math and science.

"We are seeing kids in the fourth through eighth grade starting to be interested in science and all of a sudden getting turned off," said Alex Cirillo, vice president of the 3M Foundation. He's funding efforts -- inside and outside of classrooms -- in which children can have fun with science and develop their confidence in solving math and science challenges.

Cirillo, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry, said that the company decided to build on its long-standing education commitment recently by becoming the lead national sponsor of the Young Scientist Challenge with Discovery Education.

Tom Wood, a 3M corporate scientist and judge for the Discovery competition, said science opens the eyes of students to the world around them. "It is much more satisfying for a young person to learn how an iPod works than how to work an iPod," Wood said.

In a typical year, 3M, which has 76,000 workers, hires several hundred scientists and technical experts. "You have to have people who are savvy and educated in the systems and technologies of today," Palensky said.

In its St. Paul schools program, 3M invites parents to visit the Maplewood campus, a step Cirillo called critical because "a parent can actually see that child in the laboratory and see them as a potential scientist."

Full disclosure: I am a former 3M employee (1980-1989). One of the best years of my life was spent making traffic signs at TCM. I still have friends from that year. The employees at 3M are great people. Alex Cirillo, Fred Palensky, and Tom Wood are all very competent technical people or managers. The fact that this caliber of person is involved in the effort demonstrates how seriously 3M takes this work.

Bravo.

We could learn a lot from 3M about exciting kids with science at the K-12 level.

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