Doing Better at Doing Good

Job prospects and quality of life key to retaining top talent

May 12, 2012 

Daniel Mellinger is making North Carolina proud.

At 27, he’s a product of our state’s public schools – a graduate of High Point’s T.W. Andrews High School and N.C. State. He’s an accomplished inventor and a budding entrepreneur.

He’s also a YouTube sensation.

Mellinger designs and builds small robotic flying machines called quadrotors. He and a few friends produced an astonishing video of the quadrotors buzzing around a room playing the James Bond theme on musical instruments. The total number of YouTube views since they posted the short video on Feb. 28: more than 3 million.

There’s only one problem with this feel-good story: Mellinger has taken his talent out of state.

He’s earning his Ph.D. this month from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied in the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception lab. He’ll stay there as he launches his new company KMel Robotics with a colleague.

They’ll explore practical uses for the quadrotors, which show promise for aiding emergency response efforts, among other things. Following a disaster, the vehicles could be equipped with cameras that fly around and quickly capture and relay information without putting rescuers in jeopardy.

“We have a lot of connections at Penn, so we have set up shop here in Philly,” he said in an email.

He can’t be blamed. Smart people go where there the opportunities are. And if we’re smart, we’ll find ways to keep Mellinger connected with his home state and lure him back eventually.

To better harness our talent for the future, we also need to ask two critical questions. How can we develop more Daniel Mellingers? And what will it take to keep them in North Carolina?

Raising awareness

Mellinger believes the answer to the first question involves raising awareness about STEM careers – those in science, technology, engineering and math. “Programs that show young people how these subjects are applied in the real world in interesting ways are very important. Just getting students motivated to focus on these areas will enhance their education.”

There’s some work to do. When the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report in February on science education standards in America, North Carolina was one of 17 states to receive a D grade.

The N.C. STEM Learning Network, launched in 2008, is working to reverse that trend.

A project of the N.C. Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Center, the Learning Network is directing a statewide plan for STEM education that was created last fall by the state board of education, UNC system, community colleges, the General Assembly and other key players. Its web site at www.ncstem.org provides an array of resources for enhancing science and technology education, as well as information on important STEM initiatives across the state.

The Charlotte Area STEM Teaching and Learning Environment Coalition (CASTLE), for example, regularly brings together for more than 50 businesses, universities and nonprofits to discuss ways to advance the cause.

STEMersion Charlotte 2012 is a two-week program that helps high school science and math teachers build classroom lessons that showcase how STEM knowledge is used in the real world. Businesses that host the teachers include Coca-Cola, Siemens, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, AREVA and Livingston & Haven engineering. Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, in collaboration with local businesses, is also creating two-week learning units that show STEM skills at work. The units include “The Physics of Safe Driving with Richard Petty Racing,” “The Chemistry of Coca-Cola” and “The Math & Science of Recycling with Gerdau Ameristeel.”

Grow and recruit

In the Triangle, Wake County Schools has teamed with N.C. State to form the STEM Early College High School. Ultimately, the school will involve 250 students in accelerated, hands-on learning, all in the context of major challenges STEM expertise can help address in the 21st century – such as improved health and medicine, access to cleaner air and water, affordable solar energy and improved urban infrastructure.

Once we prepare these students, how do we hang onto them?

Research by Richard Florida and others shows that retaining talent comes down to two key factors: job prospects and quality of life. North Carolina does well in the latter category; continuing to build cultural assets, improve public education and expand recreational options will further enhance our standing. On the job front, we need to recruit more STEM companies and also grow our own. That will require increased capital for entrepreneurs, strong personal networks at the university and professional levels and increasingly sophisticated graduate programs and research labs.

“Retention is absolutely key,” says Mark Ezzell of the STEM Learning Network. A statewide scorecard that tracks the success of STEM initiatives will focus not only on educational progress but also on economic development impact, including the attraction and retention of talent.

When rising stars like Daniel Mellinger decide to stay home, we’ll know we’re succeeding.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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