Think tank leader talks STEM, innovation at Catholic Memorial

Originally posted by the Waukesha Freeman

WAUKESHA — Catholic Memorial High School hosted scholar, author and think tank leader Robert Atkinson Thursday to speak on STEM education and careers as well as whether the local region is poised to be the next leader in innovation.

Atkinson, the founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and former nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, began by asking the audience of CMH students how many want to pursue a STEM job. When a large share of hands went up, he said that’s both unusual and positive since most schools see fewer students interested in STEM.

At one point during the talk, Atkinson held up his iPhone.

“It wasn’t like there was really anything new about this,” he said, harkening back to 2007 when Apple founder Steve Jobs first debuted the original version of the device. Atkinson said touchscreens, music players and cellphones all existed previously, but not combined into one device.

“The genius of Jobs was to put this together on an amazing new business model (which) was the music store, and the App Store, and the book store,” he said.

When a student asked how to become a better thinker, Atkinson said debate, whether formal or not, is helpful. He also encouraged students to read books they disagree with, which he said he does.

Milwaukee-Madison corridor as potential tech hub

CMH President Donna Bembenek said Atkinson’s visit came on the heels of a new study with an encouraging conclusion for the local area. She told students that study, conducted by Brookings and ITIF, found several areas in the Midwest are ripe for becoming the next tech hub. Among them is the Madison-Milwaukee corridor, which includes Waukesha County.

“They looked at where might be some real market opportunities to serve as a Midwest tech hub,” Bembenek said. “Fortunately for us, the Milwaukee-Madison corridor has been identified as high potential.”

Atkinson said he’s seen software engineers sleeping in their vehicles because housing where they live is so expensive; he added his son pays more for a studio apartment in Silicon Valley than he does for the mortgage on his Maryland home.

The companies are looking for relatively low cost of living, an existing local tech sector, good colleges, feeder high schools and quality of life. Atkinson said this area has all of those things.

“If you can get five tech companies to say ‘Wow, the Milwaukee-Madison corridor is really cool’ and they start to move jobs there (then) it starts to get a reputation,” he said. “Once you get to that critical mass you start to take off.”

The emerging opportunities for tech innovation in energy, manufacturing and farming all help make the Midwest ideal for the next tech hub too, Atkinson said, because those have historically been strong industries for the region.

One student asked Atkinson which STEM major opens up the most opportunities. He said ultimately the most important thing is for students to get into something they want to do, but the short answer is computer science because that field not only has many direct job openings but other STEM fields are beginning to hire computer science professionals as well.

“It’s really, really valuable to have some IT skills,” he said.

Atkinson emphasized the need for not just studying one thing deeply but being knowledgeable in multiple fields. He added that a friend who’s running a company has told him they’re struggling to find people who are authorities on more than one topic and “can see the connection between things.”

CMH President Donna Bembenek and INIF Founder Robert Atkinson

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