The upcoming STEM series will run throughout September and October to spotlight local government and private sector executives and their insights about the shortage in STEM workers/local pipeline gap. We’ll publish the stories periodically throughout “SeptSTEMber” in Q&A or feature format.
The greater Washington area employs the largest percentage of STEM workers (18.8 percent in Maryland and 16.5 in Virginia, according to a U.S. Census report), suggesting the area depends heavily on STEM competence for its continued sustainability. And while industry and government execs are eager to hire STEM graduates, the number of U.S. high school seniors who are both proficient and interested in STEM lies at a meager 16 percent.
WashingtonExec recently interviewed Meena Krishnan, President and CEO, Inoventures LLC. She has 15 years of experience working in the government contracting field, along with senior management roles at Verizon Business Research. A strong believer in applying innovation at all levels, Krishnan started her own company Inoventures in 2014, with a passion to make a difference to Inoventures’ diverse customer base.
WashingtonExec: When did you become interested in STEM issues?
Meena Krishnan: Science and mathematics have been my favorite subjects since grade school and that prompted me to pursue a degree in mathematics, followed by a master’s degree in econometrics and another master’s degree in systems engineering. I still fondly remember the physics lab experiments from high school on resonance column, lenses and magnetic field drawings and chemistry experiments with various salts and titration. I also pursued Ph.D research in econometrics. It is important to understand that a fundamental education in the STEM fields provides an individual so much confidence to face any career she/he might choose later on in life. I believe my STEM background has provided me the essential skills to tap into as I lead my own hi-tech company.
STEM educated individuals stand to benefit immensely in their careers because they have been trained from the beginning in systematic thinking, logical methodology to any process, deep problem solving and fearless approach to abstract challenges. It directly relates to doing any task on hand more effectively and efficiently, and I believe that a fundamental STEM background is very critical towards this. Hence, my excitement for STEM that started very early in my life continues to date.
I believe when STEM education becomes fun experience, many students will look forward to pursuing it after graduating. STEM teachers are at the forefront of this, and they could help turn this around.
WashingtonExec: What do you see as the underlying root of this problem?
Meena Krishnan: I want to start off by saying that U.S. colleges are still among the top most institutions in the world. However, national studies have been carrying somewhat of a dismal outlook with regards to U.S. students graduating in the STEM fields. Children who start off with so much enthusiasm for STEM fields tend to drift off after middle school and move away from STEM education. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which surveyed more than 150,000 people age 16 to 65 in 24 different countries, America’s results for mathematics and problem solving proved to be weaker. The U.S. ranked 21 out of 23 countries in math and 17 out of 19 countries in problem solving in the October study.
I agree with Grant Imahara, Discovery Channel’s “Myth Busters” personality and a USC engineering graduate, who believes that “it is important to narrow the disconnect between the learning process and the ultimate possibilities of careers paths students can have once they finish school.” To eliminate this disconnect, we should design hands-on career training in the relevant STEM fields as part of the curriculum.
When presented in an abstract fashion, STEM topics can be very dry to some students. This could lead to lack of interest and moving away from STEM fields. I believe when STEM education becomes fun experience, many students will look forward to pursuing it after graduating. STEM teachers are at the forefront of this, and they could help turn this around. Cindy Moss, director of Global STEM Initiatives, explains that “by improving the education and training that science and math teachers receive, in turn they would enhance the methods and activities they use to teach students, leading to an exponential increase of interest in STEM education.”
As teenagers, our students look up to role models around them; therefore, it becomes important to connect students with mentors. I believe mentors could help students across demographics to get them excited about STEM. Particularly for girls to shine in STEM fields, more successful women leaders should come forward to mentor these young students and reflect as role models.
WashingtonExec: How and where should policymakers be focusing their resources and efforts to augment the pipeline and address the underlying problem?
Meena Krishnan: Policymakers should focus on increasing funding for STEM programs at the Department of Education enabling creative outreach. Particularly, their efforts should focus on encouraging students in the classroom to pursue STEM education by providing funding to train teachers to make STEM classes more hands-on and fun.
With sustained funding channeled to career-oriented STEM initiatives at high schools, it will be exciting for students to identify how STEM education can be applied and what role they could play in making an impact. This could lead to the possibility of more students getting excited about STEM subjects as they would be able to see the practical side of it.
Targeted policies could help form initiatives to identify STEM mentors from high-tech companies and accomplished scientists from universities to guide young students. Getting students inspired to model after someone who has walked their path to success through STEM fields will be a definite motivator.
Once these initiatives are underway, a creative collaborative program across many schools and school districts nationally to assist each other will help minimize duplication of similar efforts and optimize resource allocation.
WashingtonExec: What challenges do you see currently impeding the path to implementing that solution and making STEM reform a priority in the U.S.?
Meena Krishnan: One of the challenges we have is that STEM education is still not in the mainstream as a popular concept. If we want our youngsters to feel good and adapt STEM readily, we should work on making it more mainstream. We should utilize social media in an innovative fashion. The recent “ice-water bucket” challenge is a clear example. Start a social media campaign involving celebrities and accomplished business people as spokespeople for STEM, which in turn could create a wide acceptance for STEM among youngsters. When a social twist such as this is in full force, it makes it easy for schools, colleges and policymakers to encourage and fuel such interest.
Another possible challenge is that some students find the STEM material very hard in colleges as the number of hours required to do the challenging work act as a hurdle for them, and they move away from the STEM fields. A continued hands-on career exposure side-by-side with the academic studies could help decrease the effect of this challenge.
WashingtonExec: Why do you care?
Meena Krishnan: As I mentioned before, STEM education opens doors for higher order thinking in a very systematic fashion so individuals who are well-trained in STEM are confident to perform well in any career path. So, from an individual perspective STEM education certainly helps us towards reaching our full potential.
I am very thankful for the exposure I had to STEM studies in my life because as the CEO of my company, I face multiple challenges from various business areas on a daily basis. It is imperative to understand business problems, get down to the bottom of an issue and develop creative solutions quickly and efficiently. There is no time to worry about abstract challenges or no option of being afraid of numbers. I strongly believe my STEM background helps me resolve issues quickly and aids me in strategic thinking.
Finally, I believe in applying science and mathematics to practical applications to make an impact on humanity, whether it is to benefit the business world or providing cutting edge innovations to make consumers’ lives easier on a daily basis — I firmly believe that we cannot do it without a strong STEM background and education.