Lessons From Inspirational Women In STEM: “Here Are 5 Things That Should Be Done to Improve the US Educational System” with Dr. Sandra Mohr

An Interview With Penny Bauder

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We need to lower the cost of higher education without impacting the quality of services. Students are undertaking large amounts of debt to earn their degree which places a lot of stress on them to perform well and successfully find post-graduate careers to pay for college debt. We need to ensure students receive a positive return on their investment of education so that future generations make the same investment in their personal development.

I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Sandra Mohr. Dr. Sandra Mohr has worked in the higher educational field for over 20 years in a variety of career roles where she has focused on developing quality learning experiences to prepare students for successful careers. She is passionate about helping others develop a love for lifelong learning and helping students believe they hold the power to achieve anything. Currently, Sandra works as the Dean of Academic Resources and Administration at the New England College of Optometry. She earned a doctorate degree in Global Educational Leadership from Lamar University, a master’s degree in Higher Educational Leadership and Administration from West Virginia University, and a master’s degree in Counseling and Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from California University of PA.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

I was lucky enough to enter college right after high school and fell in love with the academic environment and felt like it could be a place where my talents and skills could be used to help others. College has the power to transform an individual and help them create a path for a career in which they are passionate. It has provided me an amazing opportunity to work with talented individuals and watch students become successful professionals. Teaching is an honor because I learn so much from each class as my students often teach me so much about life and perspective; they really are the driving force behind what I do every day. Working in administration allows me to impact an entire college ecosystem and create change.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Higher education has changed so much during my career and it has shaped me into the professional that I am today. Institutions of higher education constantly go through the process of evaluating programs and services to help provide the needed opportunities to evolve society. Every day provides the opportunity to live through interesting events that help to change lives.

One of my most memorable events was developing and implementing a grant at Urban College of Boston that helped women who were working in Head Start programs gain fluency in English while working and earning their degree. Traditionally, these students would be unable to complete a degree until they were fluent in English, which could take several years in addition to working. The grant focused on combining courses in their native language (Cantonese and Spanish) along with English coursework to develop career skills and English language skills. This allowed students to gain knowledge, experience, and confidence to achieve their career goals. Watching their successes in college as well as careers is rewarding. Many have furthered their education and now teach and change others’ lives, while others have become successful business owners. I learned that dedication and hard work can help learners reach their goals. The obstacles these individuals overcame was such a motivating experience to see and why so many higher education administrators do the work that they do every day.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Currently, I am developing a Center for Educational Effectiveness and a Center for Academic and Professional Achievement at the New England College of Optometry to enhance student and alumni learning experiences.

The Center for Educational Effectiveness is being developed to support the college’s educational mission of providing high quality, systematic, continuous and rigorous assessment of instructional effectiveness and student learning and success. The center will support effective teaching and learning processes that place student learning at the center of our work and use a data-driven improvement process.

The Center for Academic and Professional Achievement is being developed to empower students and alumni to create an equitable and inclusive campus environment where all learners develop successful and academic career paths, reach their goals, and become leaders in the optometric profession. The goal is to create a learning environment that embraces the rapidly evolving landscape of optometric education and successfully prepares students and alumni for impactful careers.

These two initiatives will impact learners and our graduates serving in the healthcare field. The Centers’ work is not all new; it is strategically revisioning the services provided to meet the needs that changed in the education and healthcare landscape.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?

I have never been a fan of the word authority as it leads me to think that one gets things done through a power role or position. I prefer to think of myself as a leader within the higher education field who collaborates to create a vision that maps where the team is trying to go, helps the team engage with the vision, and motivates and coaches the team so that together we are able to achieve that vision. I have worked with numerous talented leaders who have mentored and collaborated with me to create positive change on campus and for students.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

There are many great things in our current educational system, however there are many areas for improvement. As a country we are lagging behind many other countries that we consider our peers in the areas of math, science, and reading. One of the most well-known tests that measures this is the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which is administered every three years. In 2015, the United States was placed 38th out of 71 countries. The ranking causes concern given the integrated nature of the world and the need for change and reform required to be a world-class economy. Improvement is possible with strategic emphasis at all levels of the educational system. As a country, we can also learn from what other countries have done to increase learning in math, science, and reading.

Can you identify areas of the US education system that are going really great?

Education is currently going through a time of rapid change and challenges. Many are questioning the rising cost of education and the value of a college education. The US educational system has many great things working in its favor, however changes are needed to continue evolving to meet the needs of a rapidly changing workplace.

Areas that I see as strengths of the US education system are:

– Education is seen as a basic right and taken for granted that opportunities will be available for learning. The US educational system has existed for hundreds of years and has evolved to meet the needs of a changing society. There are many similarities throughout time but also many positive advances that have helped create today’s reality.

– Due to technological advancements, more data is available that can be used for understanding the outcomes of investments into the educational system. This allows us to make better choices and decisions that are data driven.

– Students have the freedom to choose schools, programs of study, and research topics. This leads into more diverse ways of creating learning opportunities like micro learning and massively open online courses to help meet their educational needs.

– The higher education system is decentralized which allows institutions to innovate and design programs and services that help fill needs for the future of the American workforce. Students select from a wide variety of schools and programs and align their interests with the programs that best fit their future career path.

Can you identify the key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

As with any system, there are always areas that can be improved. From the PISA test data discussed above, there is opportunity for educational reform. Here are areas that I see as key priorities:

– Need to recreate an educational system able to change and meet an evolving society’s needs to remain competitive and adapt to the skills needed for success. It is a monumental undertaking to change a huge system that is tasked with preparing the future workforce in a consistent manner to meet the needs of a changing society. As a relatively democratic system, it will take time to build momentum around future educational changes. This can also help with those who have become cautious of the merits of higher education through observing adaptations that meet the current and future educational needs. We are starting to see accrediting bodies open to innovative methods of providing education and colleges are looking to create certificates that stack and lead towards a degree to help create achievable milestones for adults.

– Lowering the cost of higher education without impacting the quality of services. Students are undertaking large amounts of debt to earn their degree which places a lot of stress on them to perform well and successfully find post-graduate careers to pay for college debt. We need to ensure students receive a positive return on their investment of education so that future generations make the same investment in their personal development.

– Create programs that help faculty learn innovative ways of teaching to enhance student learning. Students enter the classroom with a higher degree of technological skills and have almost instant access to information. Faculty need ongoing training and professional development to help students gain information literacy to further their learning process. It is essential that students become proficient in soft skills, like communication, problem solving, and critical thinking. Faculty play an essential part of the educational reform process and need to be valued for their role and treated as professionals who educate the next leaders of our country.

– Develop campuses that are inclusive and equitable environments so that all students feel welcome and have the tools to succeed. As the country is becoming more diverse, it is important to ensure that students have the opportunity to reach their full potential through access to education. Colleges are creating diversity roles on campus which is a positive step; however the idea of inclusive and equitable environment needs to be ingrained in everyone’s role on campus.

– Ensure that mental health of students is a key priority. In the past decade, college students have displayed increases in isolation, stress, anxiety, and depression. Higher education needs to better understand and provide treatment options to help students manage mental health concerns.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest ways we can increase this engagement?

The US Government has supported the National Science and Technology Council to create a 5 year plan that was shared in December of 2018. The plan is a great resource to better understand the governmental strategy being deployed to increase early engagement in learning key concepts

Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education

For those working in the K-12 segment, one way to increase engagement in the STEM fields is to provide resources for students to learn more about career opportunities early through guest speakers and field trips. When you hear about summer academies or internships, pass them along and encourage students to attend. This opens up opportunities and interests in career fields. We tend to know and understand what those around us do for work and go into fields similar to our families or communities, so exploring and seeing how classes and learning can translate into career options can be exciting for students. Students can also begin to think about what is needed as they prepare for their future careers. Preparing for STEM careers requires that skills are taught early so students have the knowledge and confidence to enter into programs of study.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

For the US to remain competitive in a global economy, it is essential that women are encouraged to explore their interest in STEM subjects and have the opportunity to learn and develop their skillsets. As a country, we need to create an educational ecosystem that focuses around innovation and encourages everyone to take part in lifelong access to STEM education so that the US can remain competitive.

Additionally, STEM occupations are growing at a faster pace than other jobs and normally provide higher income potential. When looking into the future of the workplace, most jobs will require at least a basic understanding of math and science.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest ways we can increase this engagement?

Preparing for our future is everyone’s job. Collaboration among learners, families, educators, communities, employers, and government is essential to grow engagement for women in STEM subjects. There are numerous programs and initiatives to help women develop interest in these fields. I think what helps move students into deciding that one of these areas is a good fit is the belief that they can be successful while developing determination and grit. Having someone who builds confidence in a young woman to believe that success is possible can go a long way. Finding successful mentors is another way to help someone see the potential and growth within a field. Additionally, educating hiring managers and human resources to look at woman as equal and qualified applicants is also important. This would lead to hiring women who are qualified for positions and paying them equally to men for the work.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

As the workforce is changing, we need to create opportunities for learners to develop necessary skills for success as a country. Individuals not only need the technical side of skills but also need to soft skills like critical thinking, problem solving, adaptability, and collaboration. I don’t have an aversion to using the word STEAM, but I think that all career fields need to focus around developing the whole person. Providing opportunities for the arts field can open up creative sides of individuals that can transfer into the workplace through creative thinking.

Providing opportunities for one to learn and take part in arts curriculum opens up the potential to be creative and think differently. It also allows for more social connectedness due to the more interactive nature of the learning material which is important for students to connect and work with others.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I would continue to work on building diverse learners that are representative of the population in the U.S. As a country, we need to provide incentives and create equitable opportunities for underrepresented groups so that they are able to gain the education and experiences necessary for success in the workplace. Completing STEM education opens up opportunities that are often not available without the education and experiences.

Classroom learning will always have a place in the learning process. Finding ways of connecting classroom learning to opportunities outside of the classroom can build and develop skills. Interweaving learning in class with after school programs, summer camps, tutoring, and even career visits can increase interest in learning and skill development. Then ensuring equality in access to these out of classroom learning environments becomes the next important step.

As for the adults working in their careers, we need to develop educational systems and processes that help focus professional development around growth and change opportunities. An employee will change jobs numerous times throughout their career and will need new and different skills at each of those career transitions.

Another priority area is building stronger connections between employers and educational institutions to partner together to innovate the pedagogical experiences. Employers need to provide feedback on what is working from a career training perspective and share areas where employees need to increase their skills. Both sides need to know and understand what is happening during a program of study as well as the entry pathways into a career to help create stronger systems that support the employee and the success of the workforce.

Another key area is investing in the training and development of teachers at all levels. As the world is changing, the way we teach needs to change to create individuals prepared for success in the workforce. This will require an ongoing investment in professional development of our teachers in these approaches. Creating the strongest and most prepared teachers possible empowers students to achieve their career goals and support the US economic growth engine.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite education quotes comes from Nelson Mandela

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

This quote is personally relevant because education has changed the opportunities that I have had in my life which would never have been available without the knowledge gained from each of those experiences. Every day, I interact and work with amazing students and professionals. If I am lucky, I can impact them and create positive change in the world.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Absolutely, I really enjoy engaging with others via Social Media. They can connect with me via:

Linkedin — https://www.linkedin.com/in/drsandramohr/

Twitter — https://twitter.com/DrSandraMohr

Instagram — https://www.instagram.com/drsandramohr/

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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