Educational Equity and Science Education during a Pandemic: Spotlight on the Amgen Foundation

Scott Heimlich, Vice President of Amgen Foundation
with ACCP Staff

Scott Heimlich, Amgen Foundation VP

The Amgen Foundation recently announced an additional $3 million grant to Khan Academy to support science education and improve educational equity during the pandemic crisis. ACCP spoke to Scott Heimlich, Vice President of the Amgen Foundation, to discuss the funding.

Can you tell us the focus of the Amgen Foundation’s grant to Khan Academy, and what you hope to achieve?

For nearly 30 years, the Amgen Foundation has sought to advance excellence in science education to inspire the next generation of innovators. Whether due to economic or geographic limitations, too many students lack opportunities to engage meaningfully in the scientific process. Globally, this has led to clear and significant gaps in diversity across scientific fields and in scientific literacy overall. With these funds, we hope to address some of these gaps and advance science learning as students are kept out of classrooms. Now more than ever, we need to engage students in science and prepare the next generation to tackle tomorrow’s challenges.

That said, there are really three components to the recent grant to Khan Academy. The first is that we’ve committed an additional $3 million and remain committed to maintaining our role as their biology partner, which we’ve been since 2015. Secondly, through Khan Academy’s District Partnership initiative, funds will also go towards supporting two underserved school districts that are now facing budget cuts due to COVID-19. This will enable these districts to receive the training, support, and analytics necessary to bring Khan Academy to every classroom in their district, with the Amgen Foundation picking up some of the costs of that engagement on a per student basis.

The third component is deepening the collaboration between Khan Academy and LabXchange, especially at this critical time where remote learning and teaching is the only option for so many communities. After launching in January on the UN International Day of Education, LabXchange is a free online science learning platform made possible by the Amgen Foundation and Harvard University. I’m proud to say that Khan Academy biology content is now available on LabXchange, while links to LabXchange simulations are now available on relevant Khan Academy lessons, all of which can be utilized for free by teachers and students across the globe.

Was the additional funding already in the works, or was this precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic?

We actually made this new commitment prior to our awareness of the scale of what would become COVID-19, or how it would impact schools and ultimately so much of society across the world. We’ve always seen Khan Academy as an indispensable and versatile educational resource – particularly as it relates to hybrid learning where face-to-face instruction is combined with online activities. But now as schools have had to transition to remote learning and teaching, it’s more important than ever that teachers and students have the resources and training they need. And we’re extremely proud to be able to help provide access to those resources to continue teaching and learning during these challenging times.

Science and science education are hot topics right now, between the coronavirus and the issues involving sustainability and climate change. How do you hope this grant will address needs in those areas?

Achieving progress on climate change and sustainability goals overall is going to take a huge collaborative effort. Thankfully, with free virtual learning platforms such as Khan Academy and LabXchange, students have the ability to engage with such topics, which will hopefully excite them outside of the hands-on environment of the classroom, instill an appreciation for science and the joy of discovery, and encourage them to become the leaders of tomorrow. LabXchange in particular is a space where people can come together to collaborate and think about ways to address the challenges we face, whether it’s the environment, disease, or how we inspire and educate the next generation of scientists.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the issues surrounding racial inequity specifically in terms of education and health. This grant in part works to address those issues in underserved communities. Are there other initiatives the Amgen Foundation is working on in these areas as well?

The Amgen Foundation and Khan Academy’s goal is to provide access to education for everyone — because everyone deserves the opportunity to succeed. As does LabXchange, which is why both platforms are free. There are racial inequities affecting every aspect of American society, and in response to the recent national and international movement, the Amgen Foundation recently committed $7.5 million to help advance racial justice (this is in addition to Amgen and the Amgen Foundation’s earlier $12.5M commitment to address emergency responses to COVID-19). With racial justice, some of those funds are being spent at the national level to support organizations such as the Equal Justice Initiative and Race Forward, while other funds are dedicated to local efforts in Amgen communities as well as additional efforts to advance racial equity in STEM. None of these issues will be solved by philanthropy alone, but we hope it can be one step in how the Amgen Foundation can contribute to helping create a more equitable and just society for all.

How are you measuring impact from this grant? And are you measuring racial justice impacts as well as learning ones?

Assessment is a huge component of everything the Amgen Foundation does. We strive to have well-defined goals, strategies, metrics, and indicators of success that help us and our grantees make adjustments as needed. At all levels of our initiatives, we’re looking at how best to engage students in science and how, if at all, this influences their scientific understanding, their attitude towards science, and with some initiatives their interest in pursuing a future in science. Khan Academy and LabXchange also have strong data analytics in place that allow for data-based decision-making, for instance by understanding how popular a particular learning experience is, or through the use of assessments to gauge student understanding.

The virtual learning world provides huge amounts of data that can be turned into information to guide decision-making and priorities. When it comes to racial justice, the organizations we’re partnering with at both the national and local level have missions we firmly believe in, along with metrics around their areas of focus, whether that be in mass incarceration, housing, or wealth inequality. By supporting these organizations, we’re able to advance goals in a measurable way to advance equity and justice in our communities and beyond.

Going forward, do you have suggestions or best practices to share with other companies who may want to add education and racial justice as funding areas?

There’s too much work to be done for any one company or foundation or even sector – we have to find ways to work together. And with our focus on STEM, the need to ensure that more students can engage in science – and just as important see themselves in science – is critical. Unfortunately, for many children in this country, their zip code can strongly and negatively influence their educational outcome. Which is why I encourage funders who are interested in making a difference to consider where and how they can contribute to help create equal opportunity for all in education — and how we can all collaborate to increase the chances of that happening. We need to ensure all students – from every background – have equitable opportunities and equitable outcomes, both for their sake and for us all.

We are actively collaborating with other funders, whether through the STEM Funders Network, our engagement with 100Kin10 over the past decade, or our partnership with the RK Mellon Foundation to bring the Amgen Biotech Experience to Pittsburgh. We’re proud to collaborate with networks and collaboratives — including engaging the time and talent of our staff across the globe — to advance meaningful social impact in a way that no one organization could accomplish alone.

Has your funding around science and science education changed following COVID-19? If so, how?

This year the needs have been greater; and I’m proud to say the Amgen Foundation responded to both disaster relief for COVID-19, and to help fight racial inequality with dual $7.5 million contributions to support each effort. Rather than take it out of our overall giving for the year, the Amgen Foundation Board increased our giving. Our commitment to philanthropy and our communities remains as strong as ever, and we’re so glad to see so many others stepping up and addressing the many needs facing today’s world.

Thank you for your submission.