Local STEM Series: MITRE’s Samantha Palazzolo Discusses the Need to Get Back to Basics

Samantha Palazzolo, MITRE

Samantha Palazzolo, MITRE

WashingtonExec’s STEM Executive series spotlights local government and private sector executives and their insights about the shortage in STEM workers/local pipeline gap.

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 interviewed Samantha Palazzolo, a wireless networking staff member at MITRE.

WashingtonExec: When did you become interested in STEM issues?

Samantha Palazzolo: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) have played a large role in my life. My interest began with computers, in school and at home, which eventually led to computer camps and classes. Out of all the reasons for my interest in STEM and my eventual choice for a STEM career, it was the camps and classes that motivated me the most.

In middle school, I attended a camp at the University of the District of Columbia, which taught me the basics of circuits, how to solder, math without “numbers” and programming. It was through these activities, which had no grades or expectations, that I decided “this is what I want to do.” A continuation of classes and camps outside of school only increased my interest and motivation. It was like there was this whole new world in the background of our lives that most people never see. By the time I graduated high school, I knew that I wanted a future in STEM. From high school, I went on to MIT where I received my bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in June 2011.

In college, I began to see volunteer opportunities to work with kids, and it was a very natural transition for me to share something I enjoyed. Since graduation, I have continued to seek out new opportunities to share STEM with students. My ability to participate in STEM-related activities was actually one of the big draws for me to work at MITRE. When I realized that they highly encourage their employees to participate in outreach programs, I knew that MITRE was where I wanted to be. Since joining, I have been able to expand my STEM related efforts by taking up a position as co-chair of the MITRE STEM Council, a position that enables me to really play a role in STEM outreach across the company.

I truly believe STEM is awesome in so many ways, and I consider it a personal civic duty to enable as many people as possible, young and old, to experience its wonder and joy.

We — all humans —  are all good at math naturally — we just don’t see it that way. Our minds are mathematical by nature.

WashingtonExec: What do you see as the underlying root of this problem?

Samantha Palazzolo: A key issue, as I see it, is that many people don’t understand what STEM really is. STEM is so much more than just science, engineering, technology and mathematics; it’s a way of thinking. Being in a STEM career does not always require that you majored in a STEM field in college. You can be a lawyer, a mother, a graphic artist, an electrician, a teacher — anyone can be a STEM practitioner. STEM careers are cross-disciplinary. The key aspects of STEM are problem solving, curiosity and perseverance. With these three abilities, you can go far. I have come across people who say, “If I’ve only known (what STEM is/is not), I could have pursued a different career.”

There’s this myth that you have to be “good at math” to be good at STEM. While being able to solve math problems in a classroom setting is an important skill, perseverance plays a much more important role. We — all humans —  are all good at math naturally — we just don’t see it that way. Our minds are mathematical by nature. If you play a sport, you’re calculating angles, how hard you have to kick or hit the ball to move it down the field. Just because it does not take the form of a math problem, it does not mean it’s not math. In many cases, it only takes one bad experience (maybe a math or science teacher who doubted their abilities or words spoken by classmates) to change a person’s career path.

Increasing everyone’s (students, teachers, parents, lawmakers, etc.) understanding of the breadth of what STEM is and the opportunities it creates for everyone is one of best ways to change what society thinks of STEM.

WashingtonExec: How and where should policymakers be focusing their resources and efforts to augment the pipeline and address the underlying problem?

Samantha Palazzolo: From my perspective as a STEM professional, I believe policymakers can best serve the public by taking a step back and looking at the current culture we have in schools around the country. Many teachers are overworked and underpaid, and often need to teach material that supports standardized tests. This environment leaves very little room for outside-the-box thinking, which I see as critical to inspiring interest in STEM.

I’ve heard about a lot of “new” technologies that are supposed to make teaching easier (websites, apps, etc.), but when it comes to STEM, the basics are the most important. If a student has a true understanding of a basic concept, he/she has the ability to solve much more complex problems. Teach kids how to get to the answer using what they do know. They can derive the answer by applying their problem solving skills. STEM careers and pursuits take time and perseverance. In schools, we don’t allow for failure as part of the process, unlike in the real world. Kids are taught to get to the right answer — and the quicker, the better. And they’re taught that the teacher has the answer.

Maybe the educational system needs to go back to the basics and give students the opportunities to have a strong foundation, not something they gained by memorizing equations and places/times and regurgitating them as quickly as possible.

Teachers should also be given the opportunity to experience how cool STEM is. Maybe a shadowing program with interesting STEM professionals? Maybe the ability to actually work with STEM professionals? A STEM professional with a full-time career may be lucky enough to touch the lives of a few dozen students. A teacher can reach hundreds or thousands of students during his or her career. If we can motivate teachers’ interest in STEM, then the “problem” begins to disappear.

WashingtonExec: What challenges do you see currently impeding the path to implementing that solution and making STEM reform a priority in the U.S.?

Samantha Palazzolo: Some of the major challenges are the limited understanding of STEM, funding and current requirements.

Education is usually one of the first budgets cut in many places, but I believe it should be one of the last things cut. If we have a strong educational system, then the overall educational level of the country increases. If the educational level of the country increases, the quality of life increases. Imagine if everyone in the country had strong problem solving skills? Having proper funding for good teachers and good facilities is important. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a school needs the latest and greatest technology, but instead that it has a comfortable environment full of individuals who enjoy teaching.

As previously mentioned, the number of requirements for both students and teachers continues to grow. Maybe we, as a society, need to rollback how we enforce current standards and requirements and re-think what the outcomes mean. I honestly don’t have a solution for this myself, but it definitely seems to create difficulties whenever someone wants to introduce something new to the curriculum.

WashingtonExec: Why do you care?

Samantha Palazzolo: As I mentioned before, a key aspect of STEM is the ability to solve problems. If we increase the number of problem solvers in the country (and the world), we drastically increase our collective ability to solve problems. Small problems, like the best way to pack something using the least amount of materials, to big problems, like how to create and distribute lifesaving vaccines.

With that in mind, I have found myself shocked in the past when I have mentioned to students at science fairs (particularly female students) that they should look into engineering as a career and they seem as if the idea had never been introduced to them. If we want more STEM professionals, we need to introduce more people to what STEM encompasses.

We underestimate kids and their problem-solving abilities. I once gave a group of students the task of thinking of a problem they experienced every day and presenting a solution to that problem. One student had an idea for improving his lacrosse stick, and it turns out someone had a patent for that. Another student worked at a movie theater and hated sweeping the trash. He figured that if there was a trash chute under the seats that emptied to one location it would greatly reduce the amount of work necessary.

STEM touches every aspect of our lives, and yet it seems like so many people are unaware of the significance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and the value of STEM skills.

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