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Shari Liss on inspiring the innovators of tomorrow

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By Shari Liss
CEO of Ignited
Special to Santa Cruz Tech Beat

December 5, 2017 — Santa Cruz, CA

(Photo above: Shari Liss is the CEO of Ignited, a nonprofit transforming STEM education by fostering a collaborative community of business leaders, scientists, and educators. Contributed.)

Have you ever wondered how tomorrow’s workforce will be armed with the skills needed to contribute to an ever-changing economy? This is a question that keeps me up at night.

One of the primary challenges for education throughout the US, and right here in our own backyard in Santa Cruz, is the need to keep pace with the fast-moving realities of a technology-driven economy. Evidence suggests that California’s workforce is not keeping up with innovation demand, leaving high-skilled and middle-skilled jobs unfilled. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, employment in STEM occupations increased by 24.4% while non-STEM occupations grew by 4% over the same period. Additionally, STEM occupations are projected to continue to grow more than non-STEM occupations from 2014-2024. Our students need increasing skills in STEM to be competitive on the global stage, and – to date – traditional educational institutions have not been able to meet this demand.

I’m proud to be the CEO of Ignited, a Bay-Area nonprofit that has been focused on addressing some of these challenges. For 33 years, Ignited (formerly IISME) has helped transform education by immersing teachers in real-world STEM careers; helping them understand the skills, knowledge, and practices central to success in these workplaces; and working with them to build classroom experiences to prepare their students. Ignited’s primary program, the Summer Fellowship Program, provides paid 8-week Fellowships in leading industry and research organizations to teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Since most teachers have only worked in school and classroom settings, we are committed to providing them access to cutting-edge scientists, technologists, and engineers and engaging them in the work of innovation. A longitudinal study of our alumni found that most teachers rank their Fellowships as among the best professional development experiences they have ever had, many describing the experience as “transformative” to their teaching.

Giving teachers the tools to make learning student learning focused on real-world challenges means we are helping prepare the next generation of innovators. To fulfill our mission, Ignited has developed strong partnerships with teacher host organizations like Pixar, Genentech and Course Hero. Right here in Santa Cruz, we placed a teacher fellow last summer in a UCSC lab focused on freshwater ecology. This lab studies “the eco-evolutionary dynamics of freshwater and coastal ecosystems [and examines] how evolution shapes populations, communities, and ecosystems and how these ecological changes feed back to shape the trajectory of evolution.” And the teacher was able to take this experience to inspire their own students in the classroom about the study of our environment.

While the changing job market will present changes, we know that an innovative mind will never be obsolete. This is what Ignited strives towards; building minds that will solve the problems of tomorrow.

If you are interested in helping shape how the future of work will be influenced by the educators of today, please reach out. We’re always looking to make new partnerships with individuals and organizations who are inspired about the future of innovation and education.

As a member of the Santa Cruz community, a ten-year resident, a parent and concerned citizen, I love seeing a focus on building scientific curiosity, literacy and engagement. Our town is spectacular and I am excited by the growth in technology, the opportunities that will afford our community members and the possibilities for companies to partner with local schools.

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