Gov. Bill Haslam has started a great conversation about higher education in Tennessee. A central theme is already clear: higher education must do more to give students skills that employers need.

During the past year, Roane State Community College has worked on an Oak Ridge business/education partnership called the Rural Communities STEM Initiative (RCSI) with the goal of improving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills of K-12 students.

The partnership started because Oak Ridge employers voiced a concern to us and to others in education. They rely on rural areas for their workforce, but they see a decline in STEM skills among young job applicants from these rural areas. The region needs more students interested in STEM because that’s where the jobs are now and will be in the future for this East Tennessee region.

We talked to area school systems about the problem, and they shared their needs. Many systems do not have funding to buy materials needed for interesting STEM labs. We have students learning science strictly from a textbook rather than from the hands-on experimentation that makes science exciting and meaningful.

From these conversations, Roane State developed STEM Lab-in-a-Box kits for middle schools in rural areas. Businesses, higher education, school systems and teachers shared their strengths to make the program work. Businesses donated funds and expertise. Roane State developed the curriculum in concert with Tennessee’s K-12 core curriculum in science and mathematics and ordered the required materials through our network of education vendors. Upon providing training on how to incorporate the STEM Lab-in-a-Box kits into the middle school curriculum, teachers provided their talents and their enthusiasm for giving students exciting learning opportunities.

A RCSI pilot program launched last year in seven rural middle schools, and our survey data show that 70 percent of students responded that the labs increased their interest in science or math. We are on the right track and are in the process of expanding the number of middle schools participating.

RCSI started because businesses and education institutions had open and honest conversations. In every community across this state, business and education leaders need to commit, right now, to consistently sharing their needs, concerns, and strengths with one another. Put it on the calendar today. Reserve a conference room. Let’s do this.

One key point to remember is that education partnerships are almost always long-term propositions. With RCSI, we focus on middle school students because they are at an age when the labs may inspire ongoing interest in STEM. We hope a student from a rural area pursues a STEM career that may not be realized for another 10-15 years.

Long-term projects can be trying for businesses and higher education. But if we each committed today to consistently discussing how we can help each other, imagine where we could be in 10 years.