How ISTI’s STEM Challenge Creates a More Inclusive & Diverse Talent Pipeline: An Interview with Mark Harris, President and CEO
Mon Sep 17

How ISTI’s STEM Challenge Creates a More Inclusive & Diverse Talent Pipeline: An Interview with Mark Harris, President and CEO

The Illinois Science and Technology Institute’s STEM Challenge is now in its sixth year. To learn more about it, we spoke with Mark Harris, president and CEO of the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition (the Institute, ISTI, is the C3 arm of ISTC).

The Illinois Science and Technology Coalition (ISTC) is a 30-year old, member-driven nonprofit that measures, connects and advocates for the Illinois tech economy, and ISTI (the Illinois Science and Technology Institute) is their C3 arm, specifically focused on the STEM talent pipeline.  Since being established in 2012, ISTI has developed programs to better connect companies with classrooms to help cultivate the next generation of innovators and problem-solvers.

Before beginning their programs, the ISTI team spent an entire year researching and talking to educators and industry members about gaps in talent development. They found that a disconnect exists between what students are learning in classrooms and what happens in the real world. A recent Randstad report cited by Mark Harris found that a large number of students didn’t even know anyone with a job in STEM. “When asked to think about STEM jobs, [students] often mentioned NASA, not companies like Coca-Cola or State Farm,” Harris said.  ISTI’s main goal: demystifying STEM careers for young people and connecting companies with classrooms in order to create a more inclusive and diverse talent pipeline. From this goal, the STEM Challenge was born.

Image Courtesy of Mark Harris

“We want to demystify STEM careers for young people.” – Mark Harris, President & CEO of ISTC
                  ISTI’s STEM Challenge is a year-long process that invites students to tackle complex, interdisciplinary, real-world problems identified by industry.  This year, there are 26 high schools participating in the STEM Challenge and 17 participating companies, amongst which you’ll find big names like Microsoft, Lenovo, AbbVie, Caterpillar and more. Generally, participating companies take on 1-3 schools, but Microsoft is taking a record-breaking 5 this year. Companies are scouted in the summer and the challenge content is facilitated by ISTI and devised by employees in order to achieve an authentic industry problem.

The goal is to present the students with “real, messy problems” that companies are facing. Schools and companies work together to define their own timeline and begin the year with a kickoff event where mentors, identified by the company, introduce themselves and their industry to the students.  ISTI hosts a professional development for all participating teachers and provides coaches, all former educators, who help the teachers implement the challenge into their curriculum. After the kickoff, mentors visit the classroom throughout the year and even host the students at their organization for a site visit. In April, one team from each high school is chosen to attend the annual student showcase and present in front of an audience of 400+ industry professionals and peers.

Image Courtesy of ISTI

              The high school students who participate in the STEM Challenge aren’t the only ones doing the innovating—ISTI developed the Mentor Matching Engine for the initiative. In between in person visits, the students and mentors use the tool weekly to stay connected, video conference, and to securely share files. The tool is an invite-only platform with embedded background checks to ensure student safety. The platform is also being used by nonprofits, school districts, and by a number of schools for independent research. Harris elaborated that the mentoring platform “allows for new ways of scaling—a way to reach even more schools and students.”

Currently, half of participating schools are Chicago Public Schools (CPS), 40% are suburban Chicago schools, and 10% are from southern Illinois, but ISTI continues to expand statewide. In the 2017-18 academic school year, 50% of student participants were female and just under half were people of color, both populations traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. ISTI continues to deliberately strive to reach under-served populations in STEM.

AbbVie | Image Courtesy of ISTI

                  So, what are some key outcomes from the STEM Challenge? Each year, ISTI gives a post-challenge survey to students, teachers, and mentors. In the 2017-18 academic year, the survey found:
  • 75% of students report working with a professional for the first time. It means the Challenge is really “giving a face to STEM,” as Harris put it.
  • 82% of students self-reported an increase in their confidence in STEM skills, and 92% of teachers reported an increase in their students’ skills.
  • Over 80% of students spent more than an hour per week on the Challenge. “Dosage matters,” as ISTI says.
In our discussion, Harris referenced a report surveying many top executives from big firms to learn what they thought the most in-demand skills were for the workforce. The skills were all soft skills and every single one is “tangibly done by the students during the Challenge.”

Downers Grove North/ISU | Image Courtesy of ISTI

                  As far as the future is concerned, Mark Harris says ISTI is going to keep exploring new ways to bring students challenges. Thanks to the mentoring platform, this means international companies could participate in the challenge, bringing in a new, global aspect to problem solving.

To learn more about the STEM Challenge and ISTI, view this video and check out their website here. If you are interested in getting engaged, contact Sarah Perret-Goluboff at

Author: Ruby Blau

Ruby is the Marketing Associate for FB International LLC. Ruby focuses on supporting the marketing, social media, and business development efforts of FB International’s clients.

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