Seven Ways Any College Can Get In On the STEM Gold Rush

STEM is hot and getting hotter, with big money available for STEM projects on campuses. Every year, foundations, corporations, and wealthy individuals give tens of millions for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math initiatives at colleges and universities. What’s more, you don’t have to be an elite university with major research initiatives to be eligible for these funds.

If your school is not already getting in on the STEM gold rush, it should be. And if you are already getting funding, you could probably be getting more. 

Here at Inside Philanthropy, we've been closely tracking STEM funding for higher ed, writing numerous articles on who's giving the money, who's getting it, and why. Most of these posts appear in our Science Education news section, but some also appear in our Higher Education and Alumni Giving sections. Better yet, we have two special guides: 

In addition, you'll find a great analysis of how individual donors are supporting STEM initiatives in Campus Cash, our guide to individual giving to higher education. 

We hope you check out all those resources. In the meantime, read on for a rundown of what we're learning about STEM.

Inside the STEM Gold Rush

STEM funding in higher education generally falls along three lines:

  • Making STEM education more engaging for undergraduates
  • Increasing student diversity in STEM by attracting more ethnic minorities and women
  • Bolstering campus facilities where STEM education and research takes place

If these sound like the kinds of projects your institution is interested in, here are seven suggestions to be more competitive in the race for STEM funding, with links to additional resources here at Inside Philanthropy. 

1. Focus on Teaching

While nobody disputes the importance of attracting more undergraduate students to STEM fields of study, the real battle is keeping them there. One way to do this is to teach STEM courses better. Many students who leave STEM for other majors cite unengaging instruction as a factor. Recognizing this problem, many funders have supported programs aimed at improving the quality of STEM instruction. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) are only two examples of the foundations interested in projects aimed at improving the quality of STEM instruction.

In addition to improving the quality of instruction among STEM faculty, beginning faculty members often need support securing funding for their own research projects. The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation offers numerous research funding opportunities for beginning college faculty.

2. Create Student Research Opportunities

Students who take courses in science and technology should have the opportunity to work with computers, chemicals, and living organisms. These types of hands-on learning opportunities are essential to making undergraduate STEM courses more engaging. Many funders who support STEM education projects like to see grant recipients go a step further, creating opportunities that expose undergraduate students to scientific research opportunities. David Asai of HHMI, for example, considers programs that immerse students in authentic research opportunities as one way to increase undergraduate engagement with STEM. HHMI, Sloan, and the W.M. Keck Foundation are examples of funders interested in expanding research opportunities for undergraduate STEM students.

Another way to use research to boost STEM engagement is to look toward future generations of potential scientists. Many STEM funders support elementary and secondary programs as feeders to college STEM work. And a range of foundations and corporate philanthropists sponsor research competitions and science fairs for young scientists. Funders that support these delightfully geeky outreach efforts include the American Honda Foundation, the Beckman Foundation, Motorola Solutions Foundation, Cognizant, Siemens, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

3. Foster Diversity

Typically, STEM programs are dominated by male students of Asian or white backgrounds. Colleges and the funders that support them have recognized the need to increase student diversity in these programs through greater outreach to women, Hispanics, and African-Americans. Diversity programs are an excellent means for securing STEM funding. Corporate foundations are especially strong in this area, as their sponsoring companies have vested interests in a diverse work force. The Sloan, Northrop Grumman, and Motorola Solutions foundations are among the many funders that support outreach programs and other efforts designed to make STEM fields more diverse. If expanding interest in STEM by a broader swath of the student body is not part of your school's diversity agenda, it should be, and just maybe you can find a funder to help in this regard. 

4. Identify and Cultivate Alums Who've Built Lucrative STEM Careers

We hear all the time about alums who've scored big in tech or science careers and then give back to the schools where they learned the skills that led to their wealth. Tech leaders are often the most high-profile prospects for a big gift, and we've written about a number of tech zillionaires who support STEM initiatives. (See our Guide to Tech Philanthropy.) But STEM skills can propel mega success in lots of fields, and one especially promising place to beat the bushes for STEM donors these days is finance. That's because many leaders in hedge funds have made their fortunes by harnessing their math or science know-how and creating advanced trading formulas. Many of these people also struggle first hand with finding qualified candidates for jobs involving advanced financial engineering. They get how damaging the STEM worker shortage can be to businesses anxious to scale up. So our advice to higher ed fundraisers is to take a close look at successful alums in finance and see which ones fit this profile. For a broad look at individual STEM gifts, check out the STEM section of our Campus Cash guide. 

5. Explore Opportunities For Corporate Funding

The process to secure STEM project funding from major foundations such as Sloan, Simons, or Carnegie is highly competitive, and yes, previously funded institutions have an obvious advantage. STEM funding, however, may be as close as the major scientific or technological employer in your area. Corporate foundations are among the most important sources of STEM grants. Companies such as Motorola, Northrop Grumman, Honda, Intel, Exxon Mobil, and many others have philanthropic branches, and companies such as these, which rely on a science- and technology-savvy work force, are likely to fund STEM projects. While a number of major companies fund STEM work nationally, others focus more locally. 

6. Connect With Employers Who Need STEM Workers

It is important to take workforce needs into consideration when seeking funding from corporate foundations. Northrop Grumman, for example, noted the need for experts in computer security at a time when the computer systems of companies and governments are increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks. As a result, the Northrop Grumman Foundation has become a major sponsor of the CyberPatriot National High School Defense Competition.

Geography is another important consideration, mentioned earlier, with many corporations seeing campus initiatives as a way to train workers. Just yesterday, we reported on how a community college in Cincinnati secured a huge gift from the electronic giant Siemens to help train students who can operate high-tech manufacturing equipment. This is an example of how smaller, local colleges can get into the STEM gold rush. Always explore local opportunities and align your proposals to local needs where it makes sense. 

7. Build Up STEAM

A growing trend in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education is to integrate the Arts to create a new acronym: STEAM. If you doubt the importance of art and design in STEM, look no further than popular computer games and the visualizations used by data scientists and big data analytics specialists. Funders such as Edison International and the American Honda Foundation are interested in STEAM projects that integrate the arts with traditional science and technology fields. For institutions of higher education, the challenge is to be creative and look for ways to incorporate the arts and creativity into STEM projects.

Okay, that's what we have. Make sure to check out all the links in this piece and good luck!