MVP for Iowa STEM: Dr. Mark Putnam

Mark Putnam
Dr. Mark Putnam, president of Central College, serves on the Executive Committee of the STEM Council to help bridge PreK-12 and higher education in STEM fields.

“I am here with a gift.” It is a phrase that Dr. Mark Putnam used when talking to Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, co-chair of the STEM Council, more than two years ago before being appointed to the STEM Council in August 2013.

The President of Central College claims this “gift” involved using his network to engage more deeply with Iowa’s independent colleges and connect their efforts and resources with the Iowa STEM movement. Since then, Putnam has used his role on the Executive Committee of the STEM Council to help produce two significant pieces for STEM success in the state, including the 4-Year College and University STEM Champions Network and the STEM Council’s Seal of Approval.

The 4-Year College and University STEM Champions Network brings in top professors and deans of various STEM fields at Iowa’s public and private colleges and universities to convene regularly by telephone and, occasionally, in person. One recent product of this community was a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation to grow Iowa’s STEM teaching endorsement. A spin-off of the network has been a community college version of STEM champions that convenes regularly as well. Both groups were brought together recently at St. Ambrose University for a focused discussion of collaborative roles in broadening and expanding the number of campuses offering the STEM teaching endorsement in Iowa.

Putnam’s second contribution to the STEM Council’s Seal of Approval came to light with the intention to expand STEM Council resources. To date, 10 outstanding programs have earned the Seal.

“I could see the benefit of widening the circle. I saw a way to leverage a lot of the related activity that would be fully aligned with STEM Council efforts,” Putnam said. “Our funding resources are very limited and will only stretch so far, so it is the hope that the Seal of Approval can help expand participation in STEM without the need to expand our funding as well.”

In addition to these innovations Dr. Putnam brings to the STEM Council, he also engages his college. Central College has hosted a South Central Regional family STEM festival for the last three years and has contributed to the STEM Council’s pursuits in national grant applications and proposals for additional funding.

“It’s in the DNA of Central College,” he said, to have a vested interest in advancing its own offerings in STEM education. In fact, Putnam pinpoints the college’s progression in expanding its natural sciences, biology and chemistry programs as early as the 1960s. That is why Putnam says his role on the STEM Council has also benefited him into his sixth year as president of Central College.

“It has helped me think more creatively about what we do here at Central College,” Putnam said. “When you serve on a council like this and you hear the ideas of such a diverse group, it informs your thinking about what you're doing on your own campus.”

Under his leadership, Central College has started an engineering program by creating new facilities and hiring more faculty and has started a larger outreach in the K-12 spectrum by helping train high school mathematics teachers from low-income areas with new methods of incorporating probability and statistics into classes effectively. All in all, Putnam says his experience on the STEM Council is unlike any other opportunity.

“Each of us has an opportunity to do a few things in our lives and our careers that are highly impactful,” Putnam said. “What is so impressive about the STEM Council is that it has very strong integration from the top levels of Iowa's leadership within the state government, as well as the corporate partnerships, and then all of the education sector’s talent. That kind of synergy is rare. So, to be a part of that is, first of all, a simple privilege. I think it will be historic. Roll up your sleeves and get involved in the STEM initiative because it is going to be important for the State of Iowa for generations to come.”

We are grateful for the time and talents brought to the STEM table by Central College President Mark Putnam and the other 46 members of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council.