A Crash Course in STEM: Make it Real

WITI News Staff

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WITI Boston recently hosted a panel on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and bridging the skills gap, at which panelists and attendees discussed a variety of topics, including programs to encourage students to pursue STEM careers, challenges in running ongoing STEM-focused programs, and best practices in industry and academia.

Moderated by IDC analyst Chandra Gopal, the panelists were Parna Sarkar-Basu of Kaminario, Dr. Anne M Powers of Regis College, Dr. Gretchen Fougere of Boston University and Brandy Freitas of Science Club for Girls.

Chandana kicked off the session by talking about her move from India to the U.S., her interest in engineering and now helping her daughters see that even when you design animations, STEM is very much a part of the process.

"I didn't feel STEM fields were closed off to me when I was in India, but was surprised that many opportunities were closed to me here in the States," said Chandana.

Global head of Brand and Buzz Marketing at Kaminario, Parna talked about the various programs she's created to help students see that they are using STEM every day - from sports to cooking. Parna says she is happiest when students are learning about math, science and technology, while having fun.

"I want them to understand the impact of technology, math, and how STEM touches our lives every day - from saving lives to buying shoes."

Professor and Associate Dean at Regis College, Anne talked about the College's STEM outreach programs, including sponsoring a middle school science fair where faculty and students are judges. They also sponsor a junior tech STEM summit where about 250 students throughout the state come to Regis and participate in different sessions.

"All the participants get to do the experiments that we set up," said Anne. She stressed that both boys and girls alike benefit from seeing STEM skills in action as they solve problems and create solutions, making the importance of these skills very real for them.

While discussing challenges in offering STEM curricula in its many iterations, the panelists shared their view on why so many girls drop out of STEM programs in middle school.

"Girls seem to make the choice, partly because their friends aren't doing it. Girls feel more encouraged when they see other girls taking on science and math projects," said Brandy, Teen Program Manager for Science Club for Girls.

Associate Dean of Outreach and Diversity at Boston University, Gretchen added that she too has seen that girls don't pursue STEM as much, starting in middle school.

"We need to make sure they understand what their potential is and what the options are for them, especially given the number of jobs that will be available," Gretchen stated.

The panelists also discussed the importance of internships so college students get to explore various industries and functions.

"Internships are critical to helping kids know what they want to do," said Parna.

Gretchen said more and more companies are coming to Boston University seeking to fill their internship positions. In fact, companies aren't limiting themselves to just juniors and seniors, and have shown willingness to hire sophomores and freshmen too, especially for Computer Science and Engineering internships.

As for Regis, the college will be making internships mandatory starting 2017 and will need help from the Boston community.

"We received an equipment grant and now there are more skills that the students can learn and use if they go into industry or graduate school. It will make a difference in closing the skills gap, and will help with internship opportunities too," said Anne.

Here are some tips the panelists shared during the session.

- Don't be tempted to let girls off the hook. Teachers are curriculum- and time-strapped. Still, they should encourage and insist that girls attend the classes, solve problems, and participate on teams.
- Incorporate scenarios that get students interested in math as a real-life skill. Make it tangible.
- Advocate for movies and TV shows like Sesame Street to portray more women/girl characters, especially in "non-traditional" roles. Ensure your own children are seeing those that do so.
- Create a safe environment to fail. Teach kids that you learn from failures. It's a life skill.
- To develop and maintain a STEM program in a school or company, get buy-in from a high-powered champion - preferably a CEO, founder, or School Superintendent.

The session ended with a question that Parna posed: A report found that 70 percent of parents don't know what STEM stands for. Is it time to find a different term to replace this acronym?

WITI Boston thanks Regis College for hosting and Kaminario, an all-flash storage company, for sponsoring the event.