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As the Roux Institute was preparing for its 2020 launch as a technology talent and innovation site in Portland, its chief administrator, Chris Mallett, found himself working the phones.
“We were reaching out to companies and saying, ‘We’re working on something pretty special for Maine and we think you’d like to be part of it,’” he recalls.
Those opening phone calls were made to major companies in Maine considered to be prospects as founding corporate partners with the institute. But Mallett and his colleagues weren’t just pitching.
“We listened and identified what it is they’re trying to do,” he says. “We worked with their leadership to understand the opportunities that made sense for their organizations. We put our teams into brainstorming mode to identify what an appropriate program or solution might be. Then we implemented that.”
Those ideas have attracted increasing numbers of corporate partners, from 10 a year ago to 54 today. The institute also has a growing number of partnerships with academia and community groups.
“We want to work with industry, with academic partners, with community partners to tackle problems and pursue opportunities,” says Mallett. “The idea is help Maine businesses invest in the development of their own workforce.”
In 2020, Northeastern University in Boston launched the Roux Institute with a donation of $100 million from the Roux Family Foundation, which was established by tech entrepreneur and Lewiston native David Roux and his wife, Barbara.
The institute aims to spur innovation, build talent and drive economic growth in Portland, the state of Maine and the Northeast. Partnerships with industry, academia and government are integral to the education and research model, which covers STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas that include artificial intelligence, computer and data sciences, digital engineering, and the advanced life sciences and medicine.
The goal? Align student learning with employer needs.
In November 2020, the institute opened its Portland campus, featuring 25,000 square feet of space for classrooms, study and meetings. Plans call for a permanent campus by 2024, with space for research laboratories as well as teaching.
The institute now partners with Maine companies to equip the workforce with essential technology skills and advance research and development, bringing the broader resources of Northeastern University to the table.
Bangor Savings Bank was one of the first companies to sign on.
“We think it’s great for the state of Maine and it’s great for our company,” says the bank’s president and CEO, Bob Montgomery-Rice.
In the past, the company relied on ready-made training programs. By contrast, Roux brings a full range of training tailored to the company’s needs. For example, nearly 100 employees are taking part in courses that aim to improve processes in order to meet customer needs more quickly.
“Just the day-to-day application teaches people how to think, how to be organized, how to get to what they’re doing in a more efficient way,” says Montgomery-Rice.
The institute was launched at a pivotal time for Maine.
Recent advances in STEM entrepreneurship and training are bringing new career opportunities to the state. A recent report by the nonprofit Science is US found that over half of Maine’s employment and gross domestic product are supported by STEM.
But some worry a workforce gap prevents burgeoning STEM industries from finding the talent they need. Data show Maine lags the nation in developing a workforce for science-based and engineering jobs.
The Roux Institute sees potential for growth.
“The first thing to note about the Roux Institute is that we’re about economic development,” says Mallett.
The institute aims to drive development in “future-focused fields,” he says.
“Future-focused” is “kind of a squishy term,” he says. “What we mean is leveraging and unlocking the power of technology” through research, innovation, business development and employee investment.
Mallett says a central question when working with corporate partners large and small is, “What problems are you trying to solve and what opportunities are you pursuing to unlock your future?”
For example, one of the institute’s learning initiatives tackles a common STEM problem: how to deal with and interpret the mass of data that inundated many companies. The institute and a corporate partner co-designed a data analytics program that uses the company’s own data sets. Real-world applications, rather than theoretical learning, is considered key to the institute’s mission.
“We’ve delivered over 20 instances of this type of custom learning and development and over 500 employees have already benefited,” says Mallett.
The programs are funded by the employers, at no cost to employees.
“It’s a STEM talent retention strategy,” he says.
Westbrook veterinary diagnostics and software maker IDEXX Laboratories Inc. has partnered with Roux from the start.
“As a fast-growing company, we see two major areas of opportunity with the Roux Institute: building our innovation pipeline and attracting and developing exceptional talent,” says Shayna Collins, strategic capability development manager at IDEXX.
The partnership has so far affected over 60 IDEXX employees through the co-creation of two custom course seminars.
“Bruce Maxwell, director of computing programs for the Roux Institute, conducted targeted listening sessions with us to understand our unique learning needs, leading to the creation of highly personalized courses delivered virtually to our global workforce,” says Collins. “Professor Maxwell uses examples and projects relevant to the students’ real work and current priorities and the feedback on these sessions has been incredible, with one participant saying it has changed the way they do their job.”
Northeastern is known for its co-op program, which fosters semester-long internships. So far, IDEXX has also hosted 31 Northeastern “co-ops,” or interns, and has hired two Roux students full-time.
“Innovation requires diversity of thought and by developing a learning hub that will attract talent from across the country, the Roux Institute provides access to expertise and skills that are critical for developing IDEXX’s current employees and enhancing our ability to attract prospective new talent,” Collins says.
STEM education also hinges on a continuum that begins before kindergarten, says Ruth Kermish-Allen, executive director of the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance in Augusta.
Among its activities, the alliance provides professional learning experiences geared toward innovative STEM education for PreK-12 educators to increase equitable access to STEM learning for all kids.
To do this they partner with Maine businesses to support pre-K through 12 STEM education. It also works with rural communities to encourage STEM education as it applies to local economic activities.
“A lot of students or youth feel, ‘If I want to do something really cool in STEM, I’ve got to go somewhere else to do it,’” she says. “But did they know there’s a biofuel rocket business in Maine? Did they know that engineering and other STEM experience will be needed for wind power in the coming years? There’s so much capacity for what the STEM workforce in Maine really means that our kids just aren’t seeing — or maybe they are seeing but they aren’t identifying the traditional industries in their communities as STEM.”
It’s important to peel back the veil from a young age, she says.
“There’s so much STEM capacity in Maine today — and so much more 10 and 20 years down the road,” she says.
Kermish-Allen identifies equitable access as a significant barrier to advancing STEM education.
“If you’re growing up in a district where they can put in a maker lab or have a STEM coordinator, you’ll have a much higher likelihood of getting access to an engaging STEM experience,” she says. “If you’re not, you’ll have a much more difficult time accessing those learning experiences both in the classroom and outside of the classroom.”
The alliance’s professional learning opportunities for educators are designed to help address the problem.
“We train educators, and they work with from 10 to 100 kids per year,” Kermish-Allen says. “So we’re able to create long-lasting change at scale, across educator and district networks.”
Like the Roux Institute, the alliance connects with employers to develop programs that align STEM skills with real-world applications.
For example, one educator partnered with a computer scientist at Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor. Together, they developed a program around data literacy, a basic concept that could be used within a number of professions.
In its 29 years, the alliance has developed many programs and has reached over 1,000 educators each year; the annual number is trending upward.
“There’s definitely a desire and a need for the professional learning experiences and networks we design,” she says.
At Bangor Savings, Roux also connects employees with advanced-degree and certificate programs in data science. And the institute has placed with the bank interns who have a certain level of STEM expertise.
“That’s a huge benefit,” says Montgomery-Rice.
So far, Roux has 500 “corporate learners” and 320 enrolled learners in its degree and certificate programs. The numbers across both categories are expected to increase to several thousand in the next few years. The institute also works with industry partners to create co-op programs for Maine-based undergraduate and graduate students. It’s working with 20 startup companies.
Successful companies know they must invest in education to drive growth, says Mallett.
“All of our partners are successful and have made investments in their own way before Roux existed,” he says.” What’s special about what we do is that we’re willing to put our resources at their service.”