WPI President Grace J. Wang Weighs Challenges, Opportunities in Education and Research at ‘State of the Science’ Event

Wang encourages inspiration in K-12 STEM pipeline, pushes for stronger industry partnerships on National Academy of Sciences stage
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Matt Burgos

President Grace J. Wang, PhD, joined an esteemed panel of researchers, academics, and industry leaders in Washington, D.C., last week at the National Academy of Science’s inaugural State of the Science event. 

Delivered by NAS President Marcia McNutt, the first State of the Science address explored how research and development in the U.S. is responding to increased competition for resources and talent, and looked ahead to a future that will require an increased focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education from early childhood through postdoctoral work; deeper partnerships with industry and philanthropy; and an easier path for foreign-born individuals to study, work, and live in the U.S.   

K-12 STEM Education

Strengthening K-12 STEM education has been a long-term, complex, highly distributed, and very stubborn challenge in the U.S. that requires a robust, creative solution, Wang said in the panel discussion. She talked about the excitement and sense of exploration surrounding the FIRST Robotics Competition, an event with historic ties to WPI that has reached more than 3.2 million students over the past 30 years. Fifteen percent of students who attend WPI say they had some level of FIRST experience. 

“They love it,” Wang said. “You can see the excitement, the engagement, the academic thirst, the curiosity. They want to do this. It’s that kind of excitement that we need to inspire, and we need to do this at scale.”


Industry Partnerships

Wang also advocated for stronger links between academic institutions and industry partners, envisioning a locally and regionally connected “innovation ecosystem” that must also fit within a global framework. She said leaders need to develop new ways of working with other nonprofit foundations and government agencies to keep up with the rapid pace of research and development. 

“The tech is moving fast,” she said, “and the science is moving fast.” 

She said institutions need to create the conditions to allow for organic partnerships to grow, and need to take risks, adding that some of the best ideas sprout from people talking at the water cooler, finding ways to work together.

National Research Strategy

Wang spoke on the panel about the need to talk about science to people in a way that’s relevant to daily life, and echoed McNutt’s support of a national research strategy that could better equip the scientific community, industry, and academia to stay ahead of breakneck technological development. The rapid evolution of artificial intelligence has left many institutions playing catch-up; critical pieces of the puzzle like policy and infrastructure are often the last sectors to adapt to the new environment, she said.  

“If we can shorten this cycle, it helps us tremendously,” Wang said. “Having this national strategy will help us connect the dots.” 

The panel following McNutt’s address included Wang; journalist and author Christie Aschwanden; Stephanie Diem, assistant professor, nuclear engineering and engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; James Manyika, senior vice president of research, technology and society for Google and Alphabet; E. Albert Reece, senior scientist, center for birth defects research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine; and James Marshall Shepherd, associate director for climate and outreach at the Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems, University of Georgia.