Upper Cumberland businessman and shareholder of First National Bank of Tennessee, Millard Oakley and his wife, JJ, believe so strongly in Tennessee Tech University's plan for a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) center that they committed $2 million to the cause.
And they're willing to bet others will do the same. The $2 million donation comes with a caveat: the university must raise at least $2 million more to keep the money. The Oakleys' gift is a challenge donation - meant to spur others to donate to the same cause.
"We're not just raising money for Tennessee Tech," said TTU President Bob Bell. "We're raising funds for the future of our communities, our state, and ultimately the future of our country's economy. That's how much of an impact we believe this program will have."
The Oakleys believe it, too. Millard Oakley is a native of the Upper Cumberland region and served in the State Legislature, as general counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Small Business, as Tennessee's state insurance commissioner and other positions.
Today Oakley is a director of First National Bank of Tennessee. "Ours is a community bank," said Oakley. "The money we make here stays here. Our goal is to help everybody who wants an education to be provided one." In addition, Mr. Oakley is an investor in business and real estate and serves on the board of directors for Thomas Nelson Publishers. He also owns a radio station in Livingston, Tenn.
"Quality education is vital to our region," Oakley said. "It creates jobs, helps our economy, and ultimately raises the quality of life for everyone. We've seen that happen with Tennessee Tech University, and we expect that it will continue to increase as this STEM project develops.
"Science, technology, engineering and math are critical subjects that will impact the workforce and the future of our economy. We believe in this center, and we believe in the impact it will have for us all."
The Oakleys have a history of supporting education in the community. In 2004 they sponsored, through First National Bank, the Vince Gill fund-raising concert that helped TTU raise more than $141,000 for its School of Nursing. They have contributed to Volunteer State Community College and supported the Overton County Library.
"The Oakleys' commitment to Tennessee Tech and to the Upper Cumberland has long been strong and supportive," said Bell. "But this unprecedented gift demonstrates their desire to improve the future for our children and our communities. We are truly grateful for their investment."
TTU kicked off its STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Center for Teaching and Learning earlier this year. The program's goal is to improve the way teachers and professors – from preschool through college – teach those subjects, and to help students of all ages learn to enjoy them.
The state has not provided funding for the STEM Center, but the university has secured $1.29 million in federal funds and $1.2 million from other private donors. Campus officials expect the Oakleys' gift to generate a lot of interest and support from other people in the region, where the center's impact will be felt first.
The center will serve as a point of collaboration between university faculty members and public school teachers. As university faculty and students conduct research and develop improved teaching methods, the center will help them share that knowledge with area teachers, who will be able to use the center for their own research and teaching plans.
The university is already coordinating collaborative programs with regional schools on STEM-related projects. The next step is to meet the Oakleys' challenge and raise the balance of the $6 million total needed to fund a STEM Center building on the TTU campus. The Oakleys' gift takes the university a long way in reaching that goal.
The center will house state-of-the-art laboratories to help train teachers in the region to develop better methods of teaching science-related subjects with appropriate technology. Area schools may use the center for hands-on activities based on real-world challenges such as space exploration, robotics and environmental protection.
“This project is one that will have both immediate and long-term impact,” said Bell. “By helping our teachers today learn better methods to use in the classrooms, we’re also helping all the future generations of students who will study and work in the science-, technology-, engineering- and math-related fields."
TTU faculty and officials developed the STEM Center idea in response to a dwindling interest in America of science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, combined with growing competition from other countries. These trends are causing the U.S. to lose ground in scientific discovery and innovation, areas this country once dominated.
The number of STEM job openings in the U.S. is growing at a rate more than five times that of the number of American college students graduating with degrees in STEM fields, according to a report by the Task Force on American Innovation, and the number of STEM graduates in some other countries already exceeds the number here.
In 2000, for example, 17 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. were awarded in science and engineering, compared to 27 percent worldwide and 52 percent in China, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Anyone interested in investing in the TTU STEM Center and helping meet the Oakleys' challenge can contact Tom Hamilton, TTU vice president of University Advancement, at 931-372-3206.