The upcoming STEM series will run throughout September and 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 Dr. JR Reagan, who was promoted to Global Chief Information Security Officer at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited on Oct. 1, 2014. He was previously an Enterprise Risk Services (ERS) principal within the U.S. Firms’ Deloitte & Touche LLP (AERS). The TEDx speaker touts a Twitter following of more than 36,000.
WashingtonExec: When did you become interested in STEM issues?
Dr. JR Reagan: I first became interested in STEM issues when I became the Chief Innovation Officer in the Deloitte & Touche LLP Federal Practice. I heard stories about how young girls got excited about STEM topics at a young age, but gradually became less excited as they got older. I saw this with my own daughter, as well. I saw through her eyes and through my own eyes that we needed to get people more excited about specific aspects of this art; not simply about the funding for the art. Some equate STEM issues with money, but I believe it is just as important to address the human side of things. We need to do more to get people interested in the issue and promote the passion to be involved.
WashingtonExec: What do you see as the underlying root of this problem?
Dr. JR Reagan: I think the underlying root of this problem lies in enthusiasm and context. I say context because everyone gets interested in these subjects. Even the hardest of them. However, we have lost the ability to sustain that interest. Essentially, we have lost the ability to associate STEM topics to topics young girls are interested in and continue to care about as they advance into their teens and high school years. There are definitely a variety of interesting subjects out there beyond just rockets and complex math equations. We need to find those areas and related problems that are more appealing to females.
This brings to mind a great TED video by Emily Pilloton. In her video, Emily talks about Teaching Design for Change. She moved to a rural county in North Carolina to engage in “design led community transformation” as she calls it, trying to introduce creative capital to those communities. In her story, she and her team use science and technology to help uplift communities in the poorest county in the state. I believe that we can use that same approach for a lot of social and community issues.
I gave a TED Talk called “innovation has no age limit” where I shared several stories of young individuals, even those as young as seven years of age. They each faced different circumstances yet opted to “think outside the box” and address their individual issues through innovation. Their desire drove them and they were successful.
I think that everything should have the “small enough to win big enough to matter” aspect. We need to figure out what small things we can do to make the STEM fields interesting to young girls in the context of current society.
WashingtonExec: How and where should policymakers be focusing their resources and efforts to augment the pipeline and address the underlying problem?
Dr. JR Reagan: I think it is less about picking winners or losers or specific schools, but more about trying to enable an environment for change. The way we do that would be to have more role models that these students can look to, more causes that they can engage in, and to have more of a network of support (whether it be parents, teachers or mentors).
WashingtonExec: What challenges do you see currently impeding the path to implementing that solution and making STEM reform a priority in the U.S.?
Dr. JR Reagan: I do not think the problem lies in funding. It is definitely more about the organization of problems and issues than it is about the dollars needed. I think it is important for us to develop and offer a different perspective on STEM issues and give young women “something to care about.”
WashingtonExec: Why do you care?
Dr. JR Reagan: I care because I see these issues in my own workplace. I see the need for growth in the area of diversity. To have workplace diversity it is imperative to develop the skill sets that society needs in students of both genders and from all backgrounds while they are still in the classroom. Diverse societies produce better people. I think it is important for business people and educators to be more proactive about STEM issues and not leave them to be resolved themselves.