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NJIT has long been ahead of the curve

With Bloom at the helm, school is setting standard for STEM-based jobs

Joel Bloom, president, NJIT.
Joel Bloom has been the president of NJIT since 2011.-(PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

As technology becomes more prevalent in daily life, the industry has changed the landscape of sectors that have otherwise been unrelated.That includes manufacturing, where the old image of workers in a steel mill or textile factory are long gone, replaced by workers developing the newest technologies for the emerging “internet of things.”

With some estimates saying 80 percent of new jobs emerging in the next decade will require some level of math and science training, there has been a push toward STEM — or science, technology, engineering and mathematics — education in the state.

It’s a trend New Jersey Institute of Technology President Joel Bloom has spent the last 25 years waiting for.

NJBIZ: STEM has taken a hold of the economy in the last few years. As someone who has been leading one of the top STEM schools of the last 20 years, are you delighted to find the rest of the world catching up?

Joel Bloom: I’m not sure they are catching up as much as catching on. STEM became part of the lexicon among educators interested in these disciplines during the early 1990s. Prior to my employment at NJIT, I was the assistant commissioner for K-12 education in the state of New Jersey, and we were engaged in establishing proficiencies and setting standards for math, science and technology as well as English and writing education. Having been familiar with the science and technology high schools in New York City, I helped launch New Jersey’s first high-tech high school in Hackensack, the Bergen Academy. Subsequently, while at NJIT, I assisted with the establishment of other county high-tech high schools, including Hudson and Morris counties, and Newark’s Science Park High School. Being immersed in this work, I was delighted when STEM began to appear in the popular literature during the early 2000s.

NJBIZ: This must be great for NJIT.

JB: NJIT is unquestionably a leader in STEM education, and that’s been great for our students, but the modern economy needs more graduates of the type that NJIT and the other 31 polytechnic universities in this country can produce. Quite recently, the Wall Street Journal noted that the United States has 1.3 million vacant jobs in STEM fields annually and only 600,000 new graduates within those disciplines. So, it’s not surprising that NJIT graduates have an average of approximately three job offers in hand by graduation and earn starting salaries that exceed the national average by nearly 20 percent. Enrollment trends show us that prospective students understand STEM is where the best jobs are, and higher education is beginning to respond to their interest, as well as the realization that all students will need at least basic technological proficiency in order to compete in the 21st century economy.

NJBIZ: Are you finding this rush to STEM bringing different students to the school?

JB: The attention STEM has begun to receive has changed the student body. That’s empirically evident when you examine NJIT’s enrollment data. Applications have been rising, enrollment has increased, and the academic profile of our students has become even more impressive — the average scores of our freshmen on the math and critical reading sections of the SAT are more than 200 points above the national average. For our students in the Albert Dorman ’45 Honors College, those scores (averaging 1421 out of 1600) exceed the national average by more than 400. Those are both record highs for NJIT. Since being established in 1995 with about 120 students, the Dorman Honors College has grown to roughly 700 STEM students who are sought-after by many of the best universities across the country. So, the number of talented students seeking a STEM education is growing. Also, the diversity of the student population at NJIT is a strong point that continues to improve, as was just noted by U.S. News & World Report. We still need to attract more women to these fields, though, and keep our eye on student success.

NJBIZ: Is it bringing different funding?

JB: In terms of new funding, NJIT has been aggressive on this front in order to keep costs down for our students. We successfully completed a $150 million fundraising campaign two years ahead of schedule and then increased the fundraising goal to $200 million. We already have passed the $172 million mark. NJIT alumni, our friends and industry partners realize that NJIT is a catalyst for economic growth and improvements in the quality of life, locally, regionally, nationally and globally. During 2015, an independent assessment determined that NJIT’s economic impact in New Jersey was a massive $1.74 billion. We also attract and develop partnerships with industry through our Enterprise Development Center and the New Jersey Innovation Institute, in particular. In fact, NJII received a $49.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year. NJIT also received $20 million in capital funding from the state of New Jersey last year for the creation of a ‘Makerspace’ and for the renovation of 9,500 square feet of laboratory and classroom space. STEM attracts funding because it is so clearly linked to economic development.

NJBIZ: How is STEM different now than it was 25 years ago? Specifically related to manufacturing, that sector has also changed dramatically: It’s no longer steel and textiles. What role has STEM played in that shift? How has that changed the employment landscape? What changes are still yet to come?

JB: Just about everything has changed in STEM over the past 25 years. The exponential increase of science and technology knowledge within the STEM disciplines, the application of technology in the teaching of STEM, the interdisciplinary movement within STEM disciplines — engineering and the health sciences, computing and Big Data, for example — the emergence of information technology and much more did not exist 25 years ago. This past week, I met with some of the leadership of a medical devices manufacturing company. Having previously visited their facility in New Jersey, they are clearly an advanced manufacturing company focused on specialized medical devices, not mass production. When they visited with us, they met with material scientists, Big Data experts, electrical and mechanical systems engineers, as well as robotics and simulations experts. Their goals include zero defects in the manufacturing, longer-lasting materials and achieving economies without sacrificing quality. They are in need of employees from across the STEM disciplines and intend to get more involved with NJIT.

The future of manufacturing is in the convergence of the mechanical and digital, i.e. the ‘industrial internet,’ and in human-machine cooperation. Advancements in robotics, sensor technology, low-cost data storage, Big Data architecture and data analytics are making this future possible. The future U.S. manufacturing workforce must be skilled in robotics, information technology, data analytics and data visualization.

NJBIZ: STEM professions historically have had trouble attracting women and minorities. How has NJIT faced that challenge?

JB: NJIT has been diligent in its efforts to attract students from underrepresented groups, including women and racial minorities. We have been extremely successful in terms of developing an ethnically and racially diverse student population. For well over a decade, NJIT has been nationally ranked among the Top 30 overall and Top 10 percent of U.S. colleges and universities for graduating minority engineers with baccalaureate and master’s degrees. More recently, we earned a similar designation for computer science. Some of the strategies and tactics we have used successfully are targeted recruiting campaigns, hiring practices that respect the importance of diversity among the faculty and staff, provision of advising and support services that help students navigate a challenging curriculum, and the implementation of pre-college programs that attract students to the STEM disciplines before they are even considering where to attend college. Our Center for Pre-College Programs works annually with 3,000 pre-college students who are predominantly underrepresented females and minorities from the greater Newark area and northern New Jersey. The vast majority of these students would not be inclined toward STEM if not for the ‘fun’ STEM experiences they have during the summer on our campus or the help that they receive from NJIT after school during the academic year. The center has been successful in garnering every competitive, federally funded ‘Trio’ program for STEM. Our Educational Opportunity Program, funded by the state of New Jersey, is another instrumental tool.

NJBIZ: There has been a push in academia, in the last few years, to work closely with industry to ensure students are graduating with the highest level of preparedness in regard to joining the workforce. What is NJIT doing in working with industry to ensure students are graduating with the skills they need so companies, in turn, have the employees they need?

JB: NJIT was founded in 1881 by industrialists for the purpose of educating a skilled workforce for Newark’s businesses, and we never have lost sight of that purpose. Partnership with industry is in our DNA and has led to an extensive list of co-op and internship employers, industry collaborative research, business startups, invention and commercialization opportunities, business sponsorship and hosting of student project teams, student career planning and workplace readiness skills development, and continuing professional education. We also have established industrial advisory boards for every academic department, which provides direct feedback about NJIT’s education and develops relationships with professionals in relevant industries. All these points of contact with industry create opportunities for our students to prove their worth to the companies that will be competing for their services.

Our longstanding commitment to industry engagement has driven the creation of NJIT’s Enterprise Development Center, which houses more than 90 startup companies where more than 300 NJIT students are employed each year, as well as the New Jersey Innovation Institute, which provides contract research and development services to industry and government clients. Our collaboration with the Advanced Manufacturing Talent Network and MechaFORCE, which provides statewide education and training in the field of advanced manufacturing, are other examples of successful external partnerships.

Probably most importantly, NJIT students learn how to work hard, how to problem-solve before arriving at success. Those are the reasons why we have more than 14,000 employers registered with NJIT’s Career Services and over 1,800 (30 percent of which are manufacturers) are actively recruiting at any one time.

NJBIZ: The world has changed dramatically over the last 25 years. What are the major changes coming in the next quarter-century? How is NJIT preparing for that day?

JB: The next 25 years will continue to bring dramatic change in STEM education and industries as science and technology knowledge exponentially accelerates, producing new materials, nanodevices, increased computing speed and capacity, and an increased STEM labor force. A most significant change will be the way academia and industry interface when tackling complex issues, such as artificial intelligence. NJIT’s New Jersey Innovation Institute is redefining the relationship among business, government and universities in a new model for advanced technology-based innovation that relies on cross-sector, cross-institutional collaborations to resolve the complex problems that individual companies once had the global market dominance, financial resources and human capital to solve on their own. That model and that environment expands the function of faculty to become more directly involved in the practical application of science and technology knowledge and extends the classroom boundaries into the applied world as an enriching experience for the student.

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Andrew Sheldon