September 29, 2023

Podcast: Innovation in STEM — Education and Career Considerations

Author: Dr. Bjorn Mercer
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Podcast with Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

and Dr. Ahmed Naumaan
Dean, School of STEM

Innovation drives the modern world. In this first episode of Exploring STEM, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks with Dr. Ahmed Naumaan, Dean of the School of STEM at American Public University, about the challenges of teaching students how to be innovative thinkers. Learn about new developments in the STEM curriculum designed to allow students to explore different aspects of STEM to help them find their passion while also learning about potential career opportunities.

Read the Transcript

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today, we are talking to Dr. Ahmed Naumaan, Dean of the School of STEM. And our conversation today is about “Innovation in STEM.” Welcome, Dr. Naumaan.

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, definitely. There’s a lot to talk about. I’m excited to talk about innovation in STEM specifically. And can you give us a definition of innovation for you, in your field, and for your school?

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: Yes. So innovation is coming up with new ideas about ways of doing things, or products, but in the context of the School of STEM, I think it’s about how we modify our processes to enhance students’ learning and engagement as we go forward. One can also talk about introducing new programs, that would be a product, but primarily it’s the ways in which we teach and engage students where we can innovate.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s excellent. And how might you compare innovation in the educational setting, versus educational in, say, private business or even in government?

So innovation, I would say today, is used everywhere. Even, I would say, overused where you go to a LinkedIn profile and they’ll say, “This person is an innovative thinker.” What does that mean? So practically, how is innovation used in the private sector, in technology, specifically?

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: So first we have to distinguish between innovation in the creation and design of products, and then in the creation and design of processes. And the processes may be for manufacturing those products, or in the case of education, for delivering education. And in the case of government, for producing policy and implementing policy and things like that.

So in the School of STEM, as I mentioned earlier, we are concerned primarily with process-related innovation. Though, of course, one can come up with new innovative program offerings. So degree programs are pretty standard, but then you can have certificates and microcredentials of various types, badges, and so on and so forth.

So those would be product-related innovations, but a lot of what we do is teaching and helping students to learn. So there’s a heavy emphasis on process-oriented innovation, as to what can we do to make the learning experience more enjoyable for students, as well as to having that learning stick?

So it’s not when they leave the school, you take your final exam and you’ve forgotten all about the course that you took, so to avoid that sort of thing.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: What do you think is one of the more surprising facts that students realized about innovation? I think when people think of innovation, they think, somebody thinks really hard, a light goes off and then poof you have a new computer, a new process, a new anything, suddenly fully formed.

But innovation doesn’t work that way. So going on to the next question, what does innovation look like in STEM? And can you provide some examples?

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: Sure. So let me address the implied question you had a little bit earlier. So things rarely pop out of the blue, right? It’s that people are registering patterns and pieces of information and they’re processing it subconsciously.

And then one day something clicks and they see the pattern, they come up with the idea. It’s not that it came from nowhere, it came from all that they had learned previously, so that’s the Eureka moment.

But there’s also a systematic way of trying to innovate or come up with new products, which is you try out a whole range of ideas and test them to the extent possible and some work well and some don’t.

But at the end you may come up with a particular product or a design that works really well. And that’s the result of a sustained effort to create something. So it’s not coming out of the blue, but in this case, it’s a conscious process, as opposed to the coming out of the blue, where it’s a subconscious process.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s excellent. It reminds me, of course, and you and I have had many conversations about music, about someone’s cumulative experience with music, is pretty much everything they’ve ever studied, ever learned and ever tried out.

And so to me, there’s a lot of parallels between technology and technological innovation and, say, musical innovation. Because you’re literally trying to figure out the culmination of everybody who’s come before you, and then try to do something different.

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: As you asked earlier about the definition of innovation. If we take that definition as coming up with a new concept, or a new way of doing things, then that’s irrespective of, is it music, is it technology or technological product? Is it some kind of educational product; is it an engineering design?

The thinking processes that one goes through are going to be pretty similar in all of those cases. They’re just applied into two different domains of work or experience.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Now can you give me an example of a recent innovation or advancement in some sort of product that you think is interesting? Maybe potentially solar, because oftentimes people will look at just the products around their house and they’ll pick up their phone and they’re like, “Well, this is great.”

But the cumulative number of people in the thousands and tens of thousands that had to create the phone you’re currently using so easily now is honestly mind-boggling.

And also just the interconnectivity of the world today, because how the U.S. works with every country in the world allows for the facilitation of technological innovation.

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: Correct. So actually I would use this example of what we are doing right now as innovation and technology. Because you and I are located in different cities, and we are using the internet to connect and a lot of software to actually record this podcast.

Now maybe a decade ago, or more than that, this would have been difficult to do. But quite the same level of quality, I’m not saying that would have been impossible, but the convenience where you can plug a mic into your computer and connect to a website and off you go. I know there are some settings to be adjusted, but that’s for professional recording. This is something that evolved over the course of the last few years.

And I would submit to you that this is a way of using the internet and using recording technologies, which normally you would think of as being separate. But now they’re coming together to develop this application where you can have conversations with people all over the world and make those recordings. And you can do sound and you can do video and take care of a variety of things without needing to be together, in person.

Related to music, actually there’s a piece of music that I really liked, and it turns out that all of the musicians were in different cities. One was in Singapore, one was in Lahore in Pakistan, one was somewhere else. And they played together and they produced this beautiful-sounding piece.

I was really amazed because I didn’t quite know how they took care of the lag between communication devices and so forth, but it was really good.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s the first thing I think about, is any time you have live music over the internet, is the lag. Even as we were getting ready for this podcast, there are a few technical things which when individually all of our systems were perfect and then we put them together and then, for some reason there was just some things that are going on.

But especially like you were saying, if there’s a musician in the U.S., in Singapore, in Pakistan, you’re basically at the will of the internet access in your area. Even if you’re hard-connected, there might be something going on in your area and then the cables that connect us a world round.

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: So I guess when you look at the liner notes on pieces of music and sometimes down at the bottom, there is recorded by a recording engineer and there’s a name. So I guess that’s the magic in terms of removing the lags and syncing things up and improving the quality of the sound, occurs when the recording engineer or sound engineer gets involved with the process.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, I completely agree. I’d asked the question about are there any innovative products that have come out recently? So obviously were talking about what we’re doing here is innovative. Anything else that you can think of that is particularly interesting?

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: I think of the use of drones for commercial purposes. I’m not talking about the military now, which has been going on for a while, but the drones in commercial applications. Whether it’s for conducting surveys, whether it’s for delivering packages, whether it’s now so-called security applications and so forth, that’s pretty recent.

And it’s innovative in the sense is that, thinking or using a small flying machine to do a whole bunch of other things, which you wouldn’t have thought about, that’s pretty innovative.

And there are things happening in the area of computing technology, I’m not going to refer to artificial intelligence, because people have been working on that for a long time, but new ways of computing, such as the use of quantum computing technologies, which are still in their infancy.

So those are some of the areas where new ideas and new concepts are being broached and an effort is being made to implement them into actual form, so it’s not just an idea, but something concrete that comes out of it.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s wonderful. Now with all these advances, which are typically wonderful, there are some times, unfortunate downstream impacts of advances. And we talked about ethics, and ethics is extremely important. Why is it important when people are trying to be innovative, and they are trying to, say, advance technology, to always have those ethical implications in their head also?

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: Well, because there are consequences to the actions people take, and those actions may include coming up with a product or coming up with a policy. Either case, when that happens and a product is built and shipped out, or a policy is made and implemented, there are consequences to that.

And if people haven’t thought through the range of possible consequences and the range of subjects who will be affected by those consequences, there’s a great danger there. Because there are unintended consequences, and sometimes those are pretty bad.

So, as an example — and we were talking about technologies and the phone and being able to do all of these things together — one of the consequences of this, and I’m not sure whether it’s correct to call this unintended or intended, but there’s, I would say, a substantial invasion of privacy that occurs as a consequence of using these devices.

Information is collected about individuals which they may not be even aware of, that it is being collected. So it’s really invading someone’s personal space. What is also happening is that because of the extent to which these things are being done, the concept of privacy is morphing.

I think both in terms of intellectually thinking about what it is, what it means, and what is the extent to which one can be private or keep one’s information private, those are things that are still being worked through. As a society, we haven’t quite jelled as to where we are going to be. So if things are changing, it may stabilize in the next decade or two, but it’s not there yet.

I want to add one other thing related to what you were asking just a moment ago, which is — I forget the name of the individual who made this comment, and maybe more than one individual has done this — but when somebody is developing something, be it a product, be it a policy, be it some kind of a technological process, the statement was, “If you haven’t thought about the ways in which what you are doing can be misused, you have failed in your responsibility.”

Which is a very different concept now. I mean, usually people go run off and build the things because, to use a phrase that was even used by Oppenheimer, because it’s technically sweet. Well, it’s got to be more than that. What is the consequence of this? Who will be affected?

And this is not only the consequences in terms of what the effects will be, but the who part is really important, because different groups of people are affected differently. So in the areas of surveillance, invasion of privacy is what I would call it, people who are less economically well off or belong to marginalized populations, they’re much more subject to surveillance and the invasion of privacy than people who are in more privileged groups.

So even though it’s the same technology, the way in which the technology is being used, and the extent to which you can resist the technology, depends on your context and who you are, which is part of the context in which you’re situated.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I agree; there’s a lot to unpack there. And just like you said, when you are a part of a privileged group, and I’ll even say that in the U.S., the U.S. is privileged per se, because at least the government actively supports civil liberties and freedoms.

With that said, there are always ways in which those civil liberties and freedoms are taken away to a point here and there. Other countries are very different where it’s assumed that you will just be spied upon.

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: Yeah, that’s true to some extent, but things are not quite that compartmentalized. Because again, as an example, and I’ll go back to the use of mobile phones, the multiple types of surveillance and the intentions behind doing it is different.

So there’s the so-called security or national security and military applications and commercial applications. And some people have used the term surveillance for the kind of information that’s collected off your iPhone, for instance, and used to market things to you.

So all of that is occurring in the background, but also because in part of the technology and because borders are porous, many of the technologies that are developed in the advanced countries of the world, including the U.S., are utilized by countries which have less in the way of civil liberties and at times are actually deployed with the help of U.S. citizens.

Because there was a big scandal in the Middle East where the government of — I think one of the Gulf states — was running an intelligence operation using technologies developed by the United States and other countries in the world and, and staffed by U.S. citizens. Some of whom had worked previously in the U.S. intelligence community. So it’s not quite that watertight.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh, and I completely agree. That’s why ethics training, ethics reading, and the philosophical approach to ethics in a practical sense, is so important for people. Because just like you said, some people could have worked in intelligence and then they go become a contractor somewhere else, but then as a contractor, what are they doing to the citizens of a different country?

And those people in a different country are people just like U.S. citizens, and it’s so difficult of course, there’s a great conversation that had between the educating of the individual versus educating of the masses.

And when you’re educating a bunch of people, most countries have to literally educate thousands, tens of thousands or millions of people, there’s a curriculum that is very standard, very basic. When you educate individuals, you can really go into depth and really have interesting, thought-provoking conversations about ethics versus when you’re educating everyone. That gets watered down, unfortunately. And so, like most things, it’s complicated.

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: Yeah, but there are approaches to it, Bjorn. So for instance, and this is where we can tie it back to the school and the innovation that we are engaging in in the School of STEM.

So for instance, in many curricula across the university, in multiple universities, there’s one course on ethics. And in fact, for engineering programs that receive accreditation from the body which accredits such programs, also science programs and computer science programs, which is called ABET.

One of the outcomes that must be met in order to receive accreditation is that students must be made familiar with the issues related to ethics and how to practice ethically and so on and so forth.

But, again, coming back to how it’s done, sometimes the tendency is to say, “Okay. Yeah, we’ll include a course on ethics in the curriculum.” Well, you don’t learn ethics from one course.

I mean, even if you get the concepts, you have to see them being applied in various contexts and applying them yourself in that area and understanding the consequences of not engaging in ethical actions.

So what we are doing in the School of STEM, one of the things is, we introduced a set of courses, one of which is an ethics course, but the other courses, which are really concerned with examining the impact of technology on society and understanding that in historical context and understanding how technology and society co-evolve.

Some things that are built affect how people relate to each other. You can see the examples every day here, in terms of the use of social media and how people connect and how often they talk with each other, as contrasted with texting somebody or sending a picture and so forth. So in that sense, the technologies that have become available recently are changing society in that sense.

But there are also other cases. For instance, as you know, that the research using fetal cells was prohibited in the United States. Well, the technology had just adjusted, but it was the society that said, “No, we’re not going to use this.”

So there’s some co-evolution, it moved to other countries and different kinds of things happened. The point I’m making here is, that then the technology and society are not isolated, they connect. The kind of technologies that are developed, are influenced by one, in many cases, the funding that they receive, whether that funding is from the government or whether it’s through raising venture capital.

And similarly, the kind of things that are taken up and utilized, or that are permitted to be developed is affected by the social considerations that are in place. So technology and society tend to co-evolve.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Again, I completely agree. The complexity of watching technology evolve, improve or whatnot, can be for most people, it’s very passive, which of course is fine. Most people are not technologically sound; I include myself in that.

But at the same time, when you do watch it, it is quite amazing. And one of the very high-profile cases over the last few years, of course, it’s Edward Snowden, talking about privacy, even to the point where over the last few months, he has been somewhat vindicated by the courts basically calling that program unconstitutional.

But at the same time, society, do they want to vindicate him as an individual? And do they want to put the blame on the government? Which is easier and harder, if that makes sense.

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: So, I mean, that’s an interesting case, not just in terms of what a court decides about whether the program that he outed, so to speak, was constitutional or not. But in terms of his own decision to get that information, to release it to the public.

That’s the question of ethics, right? Is this the right thing to do? Is this not the right thing to do? What is the greater context here? What is the greater benefit to society versus, more limited applications?

And that’s tough ethical questions. I don’t know what the right answer is, frankly speaking. I mean, you can argue it multiple ways and it depends on what value you put on different kinds of things. Like, “Look, we are all one world together, we shouldn’t be spying on each other.” Versus “No, no, it was a question of security. We have to protect our security of our country.” And so on and so forth.

So depending on your perspective, you can come out with different assessments of what he did. So, these are complex questions.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: They are, and I remember having a conversation with a group of people and we were talking about whistleblowers and the consensus in the group was like, “Well, of course you would be a whistleblower. If you saw something unethical, of course you would say it.”

But you have a job, whistleblowers, the names often come out and that might ruin your job. So there’s so many complex things that, like you said, that individually, you have to go through, besides just your career or your family, that you have to consider.

And then for something like with Edward Snowden, he’s been exiled in Russia for years and years, even if what he exposed was a serious concern, which of course it was, and in some context, legitimate to expose. He can’t come back still.

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: Correct. So that’s generally an interesting case, but here’s the thing, whether you use the term whistleblower, and I was thinking of that, when does one blow the whistle? I mean, how much emphasis do you give or how much weight do you give to saying, “No, I will follow the company policy. I’ll give in to the chain of command. My superiors know what they’re doing. Superior officers or however it is. And therefore, even though I am not certain, this is the right thing to do. Maybe they know more than I do and so in the bigger picture, it’s okay.”

Versus saying, “Oh, hold on a moment. This doesn’t seem right. If the company doesn’t want to go and stop this or do something about it, I am going to go tell the public because there’s a larger issue that is at stake here. There are more people who are going to be affected.”

Another example was, for instance, you recall just in the last few years, the scandal with Volkswagen. Where the catalytic conversion process, or the information or the data collected from it was distorted simply so that the car could pass the tests in the US.

Now some engineer probably did it, but he didn’t, or she didn’t do it in an isolated context. There must have been an environment. Their manager was, “No, you’ve got to get this out, we have got to pass this test. This quarter’s results are dependent on it. All the executives are expecting XYZ.” And those things happen.

And so whoever the poor fellow was, I don’t know the thinking they went through. Maybe they said, “Well, yeah, it’s really not a big deal. Everywhere else in the world, we are shipping cars that are okay, this will only make a tiny difference. And I value my job and I’ve got family to feed,” and so on and so forth and did it that way.

Touching back to what we are doing within the School of STEM, is to address exactly that question is, if you blow the whistle, and there are consequences, who is there to back you up? Are there organizations, are there legal services? Is there somebody who has your back, so to speak, when you blow the whistle?

So not only do we need to teach students about ethics and how to think about ethics and employ them in making decisions, but also about the consequences of ethics and that if there are negative consequences, where can they get support?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And those are absolutely wonderful things to think about because, yes, I think we all think if we see something, we would say something. But just like downstream, what happens if this and that happens and what are the supports?

The VW example you brought up, I think is perfect, because that’s an example that, well, nobody died, so it seems innocuous, but the logic might be like, well, everybody cheats a little.

But yeah, it required some engineer to do it, required some manager to sign off on it. Or it probably required some VP to knowingly look the other way. So yeah, the chain of culpability is quite long for that.

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: You use the phrase, if you see something, say something. I always find that problematic, because I’m sure that for instance, the people that Snowden worked for would say, “No, this is not applicable here. I mean, obviously we are concerned with security.” And he’s thinking, “No, no, this is not right.”

So who uses the phrase and who asks other people to use that phrase, is so dependent on the context and the social structures and systems of policy that are in place.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That leads us to the next question is, why is it important to have an understanding of the innovation process as a leader in higher education?

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: Well, earlier I said that our interest is in enabling students to learn and to relate it to some of the things that you were talking about, how will society improve, right? I mean, it’s yeah, some of it is, you leave a bunch of people together and they talk and they come up with ideas. But if we want to potentially to accelerate that process and potentially to increase the depth of conversation and thinking and practice that exists, you have to tell students, people, about the complexities and maybe the simplicities.

But enable them to be able to take multiple perspectives and to be cognizant or aware of a systematic body of knowledge, and how that can be used to relate to their daily life.

So this is where I would say that the importance of innovation in higher education comes in. Which is what can we do to make the process of learning and thinking and applying that learning easier, more effective? Being able to get to that point where people have developed intellectual maturity and a sufficient base of knowledge more quickly perhaps.

And certainly be able to apply it on a broader scale than they would normally think of themselves. Those are the kinds of things where we need to think about what we’re doing and how we’re doing, and that’s where the innovation comes in.

So what I was talking about was a big picture, almost grandiose kind of concept, but I’ll give you one more pedestrian example.

So often we have students join a degree program and they take a number of classes. Sometimes they take classes in general education, they haven’t even taken classes in the major. And then they get to the major, or maybe they’ve taken one or two classes in the major and they find, “Oh man, I really don’t like this.”

And what do they do at that point? So sometimes they drop out and just don’t come back. Sometimes they may change majors, but again, they don’t necessarily know what to change to, because it’s the same situation they were in before.

So what we have done in the School of STEM is, we have started this new course, which will be introduced in a few curricula, eventually it’ll be in all the curricula within the School of STEM and it’s going to be a required course.

It’s called Introduction to STEM Disciplines. And what’s contained in that course is, in all of the disciplinary areas in which we offer degree programs, we give students a sense of the content. What is it? The career possibilities that come about as a consequence of getting a degree in that area.

And this piece, I think is pretty important, giving them a sense of how much work it will take to get a degree in this area.

Because students, they’re smart and they have other considerations. So they make decisions which we can be called about, “How much return on investment am I going to get? I mean, suppose I can get a degree in math or in information technology or in business or in engineering. And look, in this program, I’m going to have to spend maybe 20, 25 hours per week. In this other one, I only have to spend 10 and I’ll be able to get a salary pretty much similar. So what do I want to do?”

And then it also relates to, “I’m really passionate about this area. I understand what’s going to happen.” And then make a decision on that basis.

So the idea behind this course “Introduction to STEM Disciplines” is students get to learn about the different disciplinary areas, that is in terms of what is actually done within those disciplines. What is the content? What is the body of knowledge that they deal with?

And then also they’re exposed to, and they learn about, what are the career possibilities in that area? And then another thing is to give them a taste of just what real work or being a major in this particular discipline is going to be like. So then they can make a better informed choice about, “Okay, do I want to be in this major or that major or the other?”

And we have built in the process of changing majors, providing the appropriate forms and so on and so forth, right within the course. And also helping them to lay out their academic plans. So by the time they finished this course, they will be in a better position to decide, “Which major do I want to pursue? And what are the steps that I will need to take in order to finish up my degree program?”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And those are excellent. One thing that really stood out is what you said about the amount of work it takes. And when I think of that, a degree in math, extremely practical, you can use it anywhere really, but at the same time, it takes a lot of focus and energy and very step-wise approach to it.

I think some people don’t quite realize the amount of work it takes to get through a math curriculum. But then once they’re done with it, trained mathematicians are in high demand.

That’s right. So it goes back to, students have these decisions to make. And sometimes, again, we may think of students as being in the traditional age group 18 to 24, and then there are adult students, and the situations in which they are in are different.

A student in the traditional age group may have, this is not always the case, but in general, they may have more available time and fewer responsibilities. They don’t have a family; they don’t have children to take care of; they don’t have to have a full-time job in order to be able to support a family.

But a 30-, 34-year-old individual may be in a different situation, right? So even though the other individual, the one who has to support a family, et cetera, et cetera, really loves math, and say, “There is no way. I’ve got two kids, three years and five years old. I have to take care of them. I have to have an income that is able to support the kids and my spouse and whatever. And while I love this area, I can’t spend that much time each week.”

That can also be something that comes into the calculation. And then there can be other things, simpler things like, “Okay, if I get a degree in this area, how much am I going to earn? What is going to be my lifetime earnings?” or whatever it is. So all of those sorts of things come into play and students do think about that and do make decisions based on that.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s true. I mean, the ROI of a degree is always important. At the same time, one’s ability to network is also extremely important. And it’s one of those things that, you just don’t know, you don’t quite learn as a younger college student. I’ll say younger is in their thirties. I think when one gets to that age, you kind of figure things out.

But I know for myself, when I was young, in my musical training, I thought, “Oh, my work will speak for itself.” And then you realize everybody’s talented.

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: That’s an interesting point, Bjorn. I was listening to a recording of a music program. This is from the person who put that program together, passed away a number of years ago, but he was so popular in Cincinnati. I was in Cincinnati and I listened to that program when I was in grad school, loved it, it’s a jazz program and he had met everybody. But the program was being rebroadcast because people loved it so much.

And in one of the ones that I listened to, he made the point about a jazz musician. He said, “He’s just fantastic in his ability. He makes really good music, but he didn’t do the kind of work that Miles Davis and others did, so he never attained superstar status.”

Because it takes more than just music, right? It’s what you said, networking and being able to recognize the marketing opportunities and to capitalize on those sorts of things, to be able to get that prominence.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And that’s one of the things that I know with my own students and how I communicate with them is, you always have to think of the networking. You always have to constantly talk to people and constantly develop those networks, so you essentially have options.

And with COVID, and we’ve all lived through COVID, and a time like this, which of course is currently, it’s the first for many people in the generation. I would say people who live in Asia, they’ve gone through a few pandemics, so maybe they’ve gone through more than we have. But for those people who have unfortunately lost their jobs, if you haven’t been building those networks, you might be in a very, very, very tight situation.

It seems like with STEM, with those more specialized degrees, at least that specialized training is more applicable towards jobs that they apply for. If that makes sense?

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: Yeah. But the importance of networking remains, right? Both in terms of learning about job opportunities which may be opening up, but also in terms of who can refer you to somebody and say, “This is a person who’s really good, have a conversation with this individual. Maybe they’ll have a fit.”

So the ability to get that reference, and I’m not talking about a reference letter here, I’m simply saying, Bjorn says, “Ahmed, I know somebody.” And also tells that other person, “Joe, you really should talk to Ahmed, because I think he may have what you’re looking for.”

Just that ability to connect, developing that, so, I mean, if I had never talked to you, or I’m very standoffish or just cold or whatever, I don’t have the social skills to be able to make that connection with you, you’re not likely to introduce me to somebody else, right?

So the importance of networking and also developing the social skills, which is really what part of networking is about is, how do you talk with other people? How do you engage with other people? How do you make sure that the conversations that you have with them they find interesting?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree. And for students in STEM, it’s equally important, talk about innovation, you might have something that is innovative, but if you can’t then go sell your product or your innovative thinking, or you as a person with your innovative thinking, it’ll fall flat. And as a lifetime introvert, it’s just one of those things you practice.

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: Yeah.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. It’s work. So, in summary, networking is very important.

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: Yeah. And oftentimes, people in STEM in general and engineering in particular are stereotyped as, they’re standoffish, they’re introverts. There was a joke, how do you tell an introverted engineer from an extroverted engineer? And the answer was, the extroverted engineer looks at the other engineer’s shoes. So they’re both looking down at their shoes, they won’t look up and talk with anybody.

In fact, in the outcomes, again, I’ll refer to the accrediting body and the outcomes that they specify. Teamwork and communication skills are required outcomes that the programs must be able to demonstrate, are met by the students going through those programs.

So, some of the concept of communication and the networking will follow from that, may also have to make a push, as you pointed out, if you have a great idea and you don’t get, you’re not able to raise capital to build it, it doesn’t do you any good.

So you must be able to know people and make a pitch to them and so on and so forth. Those are important parts of learning in any area. So regardless of whether you were an introvert or an extrovert, that is a skill that needs to be learned.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I agree. And my own perspective on introverts and extroverts is just throw those away, it doesn’t matter, just be yourself. And if you’re yourself, if you’re passionate about what you do, you can sell anything. And so, we’ve had a great conversation today, is there any final words for everybody who’s listening?

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: Sure. So, often people think about a generic college degree is as something, perhaps in one of the humanities and social sciences. A bachelor’s degree in psychology is a popular option for lots and lots of students, or in business.

And I would say to you, consider a bachelor’s degree in STEM as a basic college degree, you learn lots of useful things. You’ll learn how to analyze. Actually I’m not saying that you don’t do that in other disciplines, critical thinking and close reading skills in English for instance, are similar to the skills that you would require in analyzing problems in the STEM areas.

But so you learn those, you learn some quantitative skills, you learn about the world. And you’re able to take a perspective where you understand both the physical world and the policy implications of doing things within it.

So I guess what I’m making a pitch for is, don’t pigeonhole STEM into, “Oh, this is a narrow discipline. You only will have to do that thing in your life if you want to do it.” Think of it as a general degree. It’s something that enables you to learn about the world and about yourself and teaches you useful skills and extends your knowledge base.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree. Getting a degree in STEM is extremely applicable, there are, of course, so many jobs out there and only more jobs that are going to exist and jobs are going to be created that we don’t even know about.

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: Right. And I would say it’s beyond just the job part of it. So for instance, if you’re in area of art history, maybe there are not that many jobs about there, but you’re passionate about it and you learn something. And in fact, there’ve been studies that show that students who got their degrees in the humanities, 15, 20 years down the road, they’re earning as much as the students who got their degrees in the STEM disciplines, on average.

So if the purpose of going to college is learning how to think and learning how to learn and continue to do on your own, STEM discipline is as good as any other discipline. And, so I would say, take it as a general degree without even necessarily saying that there’ll be more jobs or higher salary. Of course, those will be there also.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: For sure. And absolutely wonderful. And so today we are talking to Dr. Ahmed Naumaan, Dean of the School at STEM, and we are talking about innovation in STEM.

Dr. Ahmed Naumaan: Thank you, Bjorn. It was a pleasure to be here.

About the Speakers

Bjorn MercerDr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.



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