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White House Promotes Science Volunteerism

Office of Personnel Management asks federal scientists, engineers to volunteer

by Andrea Widener
September 3, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 36

Credit: George Jumara
OPM wants more federal STEM employees to do what these two members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District have done, that is, volunteer at local science fairs.
Hillary Torchia and Jessica Power of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District (Fort Stewart construction field office) interview students about their science projects at the 2012 Georgia Tech Regional Science and Engineering Fair, Feb. 15, 2012.
Credit: George Jumara
OPM wants more federal STEM employees to do what these two members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District have done, that is, volunteer at local science fairs.

Federal scientists and engineers are being encouraged to take part in volunteer activities that support science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as part of an Office of Personnel Management (OPM) initiative to bolster the STEM workforce.

In an Aug. 14 memo, OPM Director John Berry instructs federal agencies to allow the more than 200,000 federal scientists and engineers to use existing workplace flexibilities to take part in science and engineering volunteer activities in their communities. Examples could include judging science fairs, mentoring or tutoring STEM students, or working with teachers on curriculum development.

This support for STEM outreach comes from the top. “President [Barack] Obama believes every student should have an opportunity to excel in” the STEM fields, the memo states. Because of this belief, “the President has challenged us to promote creative ways to engage young people in the STEM fields,” including through volunteer activities.

OPM is specifically encouraging federal agencies to permit STEM employees to use existing workplace rules—such as compensatory time off, annual leave, leave without pay, or flexible work schedules—to participate in STEM-related activities. For excused absences, OPM recommends activities be limited to those that meet certain criteria, such as being directly related to the agency’s mission and providing the employee with professional development.

The memo was timed to coincide with the start of the school year and should help schools and scientific societies near federal facilities convince more scientists and engineers to volunteer.

“This new federal initiative seeking to pair federal scientists with community STEM volunteer opportunities is a great and innovative idea,” says Glenn S. Ruskin, director of the Office of Public Affairs at the American Chemical Society. “Through ACS local sections, we can provide numerous opportunities for community engagement through schools, science fairs, National Chemistry Week, Chemists Celebrate Earth Day, and many other outreach programs.”

George Stellers, a high school science teacher in South Carolina, says his volunteer work for ACS made him feel like he helped many young people. “The students will benefit, the teachers will benefit, the volunteer will benefit, and our country will benefit,” he says. “It is a win-win situation for everyone involved.”

STEM is part of OPM’s skills gap closure initiative. OPM is working with the White House, the Office of Science & Technology Policy, and the Chief Human Capital Officers Council to develop a strategy to address the STEM skills gap in the government’s workforce. All federal agencies are responsible for participating in activities to address the gap, the memo notes.

OPM will help federal agencies share best practices and leverage resources for STEM outreach and recruitment activities, the memo says.

“Through direct involvement in their local communities, federal employees help build a STEM talent pipeline for future recruitment into federal service,” Berry writes. “I encourage and support continuing this proud tradition.”



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