TTU donors praised by state, federal officials

Federal, state and local community leaders and friends gathered Tuesday night to honor Millard and JJ Oakley, a local couple who donated the largest single current gift in Tennessee Tech University history — $2 million to help fund a Center for Teaching and Learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Gov. Phil Bredesen, Former U.S. Ambassador to China James Sasser, and U.S. Congressmen Harold Ford Jr., Bart Gordon and Lincoln Davis took turns praising the Overton County couple for their generosity and foresight in supporting the STEM Center on the TTU campus.

"This program is about giving teachers the tools they need to provide quality education," said Bredesen. "Math and science are the keys to the jobs of the future. It's an honor to be here with people who 'get it.'

"Millard and JJ are the definition of what it means to be a Tennessee volunteer."

The center, which will now be called the Oakley STEM Center, will focus on conducting research on strategies to make the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math more effective, according to Maggie Phelps, director of the Oakley STEM Center.

A dwindling interest among American students in STEM-related fields, combined with growing competition from other countries, is causing the United States to lose ground in scientific discovery and innovation, areas the U.S. once dominated. According to the Task Force on American Innovation, the number of STEM-related job openings in the United States is growing at a rate more than five times that of the number of American college students graduating with degrees in STEM fields.

Often that's because students cannot meet the coursework challenges when they get to college, Phelps said. The Oakley STEM Center was developed to help address that issue by serving the teachers who train students from preschool through college.

Gordon remarked on the foresight of the Oakleys and TTU President Bob Bell in making STEM topics a priority. "They recognized the significance and importance of this critical need long before it became a national issue," Gordon said.

"I want to thank Millard and JJ for their generosity, not just for what they've done for TTU, but for what that gift will do for the entire Upper Cumberland," Gordon said. "Long after we are gone, they will continue to have a positive impact."

Davis agreed. "I know when Millard heard about this need, it 'burned him up' just a little, and he did what he could to help. Many of us in this room have a better life because of Millard and JJ."

Ford emphasized the need for children to have a good educational and support system early in life.

"For kids in the K-12 system, if they have a good start, they will grow up believing and achieving things they themselves didn't think they could do," Ford said. "Millard and JJ have given the students in this area a better chance to succeed by connecting them with people who want to help them learn and help them achieve.

"We have to have the TTU's of the world creating the jobs and prosperity in our local communities."

Sasser, a former ambassador to China and a former U.S. senator, said this year alone, China will graduate 300,000 engineers. "At the present rate of growth, within the next 20 years, the economy of China will surpass the U.S.

"Millard and JJ have done a great thing for the university, the Upper Cumberland and our country," Sasser added. "Not only are they providing an educational institution, they are setting an example of generosity when in today's society, many people are self-centered."

Tennessee Senator Charlotte Burks and Representatives John Mark Windle and Les Winningham presented the Oakleys with a resolution passed in both the Tennessee Senate and House of Representatives honoring the couple for their donation.

Though programs through the Oakley STEM Center have already begun, the $2 million gift was a challenge donation meant to spur others to help fund a STEM Center facility on the TTU campus. So far more than $4.8 million has already been raised toward the $7.3 million needed to build the facility.

About $1.6 million in federal funding has been provided through NASA and other federal agencies, thanks to the entire Tennessee congressional delegation in Washington, including Senators Bill Frist and Lamar Alexander.

Bell wrapped up the evening by providing the Oakleys with their own TTU hard hats in preparation for the Oakley STEM Center ground-breaking ceremonies, which are tentatively planned for later this summer. For more information on how to donate to the Oakley STEM Center, contact Tom Hamilton, vice president for University Advancement, at 931-372-3206.

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