Rich Robbins is not a scientist, but he knows the value of science education.
Robbins is a real estate developer who helped build the biotech industry in the East Bay in the 1970s, leasing his buildings to industry heavyweights such as Bayer, Chiron, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and a swarm of start-ups. Today, his footprint stretches along the Emeryville/Berkeley corridor up to Richmond, and south of San Francisco to Silicon Valley.
In more recent years, Robbins has added to his focus of developing buildings and is now nurturing the scientists who will someday work in them — including students from Cal State East Bay, where he has given and pledged more than $500,000 to the university’s Institute for STEM Education.
The Institute was founded in 2011 to serve as a cradle-to-career organization to improve STEM education on a regional scale. Robbins’ involvement began with the fortuitous confluence
of the biotech industry and the buildings his company, Wareham Development, owns. When he saw what the companies required, he remodeled buildings to fit their needs. When building codes failed to support them, he helped change the codes.
“You get lucky and learn by making a lot of mistakes and asking a lot of questions,” he says. “Which is what we’re talking about with the kids.”
When he learned six years ago that Bayer, one of his tenants, was about to hold a kick-off event announcing the $540,000 grant they had given to Cal State East Bay to fund the start of the Institute for STEM Education, Robbins was intrigued and offered the use of his soaring lobby space at the Emery Station East complex to mark the occasion. It was there that he met Bayer’s U.S. President Greg Babe, who flew out for the launch.
“He said to me, ‘Rich, there are too many lab coats unfilled,’” Robbins recalls. “‘There are not enough people of color in lab coats. We’ve got to teach the teachers.’ I put out my hand, and I was about to shake hands with him, when he said, ‘Do something better. I want your money.’”
By the end of the ceremony, Robbins announced he would fund a three-year grant to train K-12 teachers in the rigorous Next Generation Science Standards (a statewide curriculum overhaul that requires teachers to engage in hands-on, interdisciplinary science). And since then, he has also helped support career awareness opportunities that connect students to working scientists in the field, exposing them to what it takes to be STEM professionals.
“In this country, we’re failing to give the newest generation the education and the skill sets that are required for jobs with dignity in math and science,” Robbins says. “The real issue is how do we generate this interest, especially among kids from challenged communities? I see Cal State East Bay working to address this issue with projects like CIRCLe Labs, which bring science and scientists into lower-income neighborhoods beyond the school day. And creating paid internships — what better way to learn? We don’t want one-year funding for programs like these. We need a thread of continuity. We’re building a platform.”