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Lessons From Inspirational Women In STEM: “Here Are 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System”, With University of West Florida President Martha Dunagin Saunders

An Interview With Penny Bauder


I’m a strong believer in core competencies. We’ve drifted over the years. We tend to think the solution is more time in school, more courses, more this and that. Students need to be able to read, write and calculate. Good things will flow from that.


I had the pleasure to interview Martha Dunagin Saunders. Martha became the sixth President of The University of West Florida in January 2017. In her 30-plus years in higher education, she has served as a professor of communication, honors director, dean of arts & sciences, provost, chancellor, or president at universities in Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin and Mississippi. Her area of academic expertise is in public relations and crisis communication for which she has won numerous awards, including two Public Relations Society of America’s coveted Silver Anvils. She earned her bachelor’s degree in French from the University of Southern Mississippi, her master’s degree in Journalism from the University of Georgia, and her doctorate in Communication Theory and Research from Florida State University. Her philosophy of leadership parallels her philosophy of teaching: know your students, connect them to bigger things, and set a good example. When she is not attending to university needs, Martha and her husband, Joe Bailey, can be found walking, shelling, gardening, kayaking or fishing on her beloved Pensacola Beach.


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 began my career at an ad agency. I was later invited to teach part-time at a high school and start a communications program and I found I really enjoyed teaching. That evolved into adjunct work at a couple of colleges and then at a university where I began teaching. I have since come up the ranks in administration. This is my third presidency and I still teach classes at UWF.

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?

I’ve experienced a lot of ‘firsts’ in my career. I have been the first woman dean, the first woman vice president and the first woman president twice. That has made for some interesting adventures. When you break a glass ceiling, it leaves jagged edges. I believe it’s my job to help smooth out those edges so the next woman coming up doesn’t get cut.

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

This fall, we partnered with the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition to launch an intelligent systems and robotics doctoral program. The first of its kind in Florida and one of only a few in the nation, the program will serve the manufacturing, health care, defense and other high-tech industries, providing critical support to high-demand career fields. Following a European model for doctoral programs, the program will provide students with individualized paths tailored to their interests and focus on immersive hands-on research experience from the outset. The education UWF and IHMC provide students will propel them to develop innovative technology that supports the workforce in manufacturing, health care, defense and other high-tech fields.

We also are in the midst of installing two art sculptures on campus, following a call to artists for the production of public art with a STEAM emphasis. This was an initiative of the Reubin O’D. Askew Institute for Multidisciplinary Studies. The Institute increases the visibility of science, technology, engineering, art and math initiatives by creating a hub for students and faculty to work on innovative community projects. The STEAM art installations help others by giving them a visible and interactive way to see science and art converge.

UWF’s Sea3D lab also combines science, engineering and art. Launched in 2018, the facility serves as a hub for multidisciplinary research, invention and discovery in the high-demand field of additive manufacturing, providing a space for real-world problems to be transformed into creative solutions. Housing state-of-the-art additive manufacturing equipment, the Sea3D lab provides a space for students, business leaders and community members to collaborate on the creation and printing of 3-D products. It also puts real-world science on display for the thousands of local K-12 students who visit the Museum of Commerce in downtown Pensacola each year. The lab is funded by an appropriation from the Florida Legislature.

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

In my 30-plus years in higher education, I have served in academic and leadership roles at universities in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Wisconsin. My area of academic expertise is in public relations and crisis communication for which I have won numerous awards, including two Public Relations Society of America’s coveted Silver Anvils.

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?

Many people receive a quality education in this country, but too many don’t graduate. I don’t believe the education system deserves all the blame. We, as citizens, share some responsibility for this problem. It is our duty to ensure students are ready for school and then given every opportunity to succeed while in school. I do believe that public education is better than we’re often led to believe. We read about the failures, but we forget that 85% of students are getting through high school with a very good education at no cost.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

I think in many ways, our higher education system is the envy of the world.

1. The U.S. has an incredibly strong community college system that we can rely on to provide students opportunities where they are.

2. Students can obtain a degree from public universities at a very low cost — Florida being the second lowest in the country.

3. Our undergraduates are getting more hands-on experience. They’re not waiting until graduation to figure out what they’re going to do. They’re getting high-impact practices or internships. They’re seeing those as very beneficial.

4. We’re much more attentive in student-support areas. We provide more career counseling and better advising.

5. We’re being more responsive to industry, especially in the STEM fields, because the industry is changing, the body of knowledge is changing and the shelf life of faculty is changing. If you’re not investing in faculty, it trickles down and the quality of education provided to students suffers.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

1. I would strongly encourage school readiness programs. Communities need to make sure that every child is ready for first grade.

2. On the other end of the education spectrum, in Florida in particular, universities all have the capability of being the best in the world at something and we need to give them room to grow and invest in what they do well.

3. We really need to take a look at the overall four-year curriculum because some students are coming in with large numbers of dual enrollment credits. They’re technically juniors when they arrive. Are we really serving their needs by forcing the old core model on them? We need to look at our overall core requirements and see if they’re still meaningful when we have so many students coming out of secondary education with that type of dual enrollment credit.

4. Internships should be prioritized for a couple of reasons; one, it gives students a leg up to get hired, and also a better understanding of that profession. It is a waste of time and money to major in something that you’re either not going to be good at or you’re not going to like, so internships help students determine their interests and passions.

5. Student debt is huge. It’s more problematic in some places than others. We spend a lot of time counseling our students on debt.

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

The U.S. has improved STEM engagement at all levels over the past 10–20 years, but there’s still plenty to be done. We need to enhance the entire STEM ecosystem. Barriers still exist for underserved populations participating in STEM initiatives. How can a parent see the value in educational opportunities when they are simply trying to feed their kids daily? What can the U.S. do to make a difference for these kids? We need to holistically approach the solution by employing, fairly paying and equipping teachers, psychologists, administrators, financial planners, social workers, support staff, etc. in underserved and high-risk communities. A holistic approach will remove obstacles currently clouding their day-to-day living and catalyze change by showing these kids (and their parents) that their ticket to a better life could be STEM.

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

A woman in an engineering program is still a novelty, but at the high school awards ceremonies these days, you’re seeing shifts. You’re seeing women win science and math awards. I actually wrote a blog on this very topic recently. The stereotype that boys are better than girls at science and math needs to be actively challenged. UWF offers all STEM majors several programs designed to provide them with the support needed throughout their college experience. Many of the programs are designed specifically to reduce barriers for women in STEM. By working together, parents and teachers can show today’s girls that when it comes to science, technology, engineering and math, there are no limits to what they can achieve. Each of them has the potential to become the next Katherine Johnson, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper or Florence Siebert — women who make groundbreaking advances in our understanding of the world.

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

The U.S. has prioritized engaging girls and women in STEM at many levels through strategic funding efforts at federal, state, and local levels, but there is so much more we can do.

1. We can enhance and increase our engagement by showing girls successful STEM professionals who look like them. Research shows a significant percentage of success is determined by self-esteem/confidence. It’s difficult for girls to believe they can succeed in STEM if they have never known a successful female STEM professional.

2. Increased family support is critical. It’s difficult for any child to pursue a dream not supported by their families. We need the family fostering their girl’s dream about a career in STEM. This is especially true for underserved and ethnically minority women. We can equip families and show them how to access STEM to their kids by giving them easy to understand STEM projects to work on at home. Hosting STEM family nights at local schools is a great start, but we must find creative avenues to engage with those families without transportation or those who are more worried about feeding their kids than STEM.

3. We need to acknowledge and commend girls and women for excelling in STEM subjects. Winning awards leaves a lasting impression on students and encourages them to stay engaged.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) 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?

At UWF, we focus on and believe both STEM and STEAM education are very important. In Fall 2018, we received a five-year, $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to enhance and expand our science, technology, engineering and math courses. The grant is helping to enhance courses through the creation of new labs as well as the addition of new equipment and staff. We recently celebrated the opening of our 52,790 square foot Lab Sciences Annex which provides more classroom space for our STEM students. In addition, we have many STEAM initiatives underway including the aforementioned call for public art installations on campus.

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

1. Fund it equitably. There is too much discrepancy in our current system.

2. Better prepare our educators. Take a look at the teachers we’re prepping. I think we could do a better job of marketing ourselves to students who want to be teachers or market teaching as a profession to our students. I would treat it like the Peace Corps. It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.

3. Remove some of the disparities impacting students. There’s too much funding unevenness. I have family members who are attending a costly private school and I don’t believe they’re receiving any better education than the nearby public school. We need to stop siphoning off funding for public schools.

4. I’m a strong believer in core competencies. We’ve drifted over the years. We tend to think the solution is more time in school, more courses, more this and that. Students need to be able to read, write and calculate. Good things will flow from that.

5. I’m an advocate for foreign language requirements. It challenges you and provides cultural awareness. There is another world out there besides the United States. This next generation is coming into a much smaller world and they should understand that other cultures have different ways of doing things and they still get things done.

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

General Hannibal said, “I will either find a way, or make one.” He invaded the Romans by taking a herd of elephants over the Alps. Solutions are almost never easy. You just have to believe one is out there and you’re going to find it.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

The Queen of Rock and Roll, Tina Turner! She dealt with terrible hardships but kept going. I admire that.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I use Facebook and Twitter regularly. You can find me on Facebook at facebook.com/DrMDSaunders and on Twitter at twitter.com/DrMDSaunders. I also have an active blog you can check out at uwf.edu/presidentsblog.

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


About the author:

Penny is an environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur. She’s worked as a climate scientist, an environmental planner, and a wilderness park ranger. Motivated by a passion to raise a generation of environmental leaders, in 2010 Penny founded Green Kid Crafts, a children’s media company that provides kids around the world with convenient and eco-friendly STEAM activities. Today, it’s become a leader in the subscription industry, with over 1 million packages shipped worldwide that have exposed a generation to think about and take a leadership role in sustainability. Penny, her husband Jeff, and her children Rowan and Declan live together in San Diego, California. She holds a B.A. in Environmental Management and an M.S. in Environmental Science. Penny has over 20 years of experience in entrepreneurship, management, strategy and finance. She’s a seasoned leader, an inspiring speaker, an encouraging business mentor, and a creative writer. You can learn more about Green Kid Crafts at https://www.greenkidcrafts.com/ and follow Penny’s stories and updates at https://www.instagram.com/greenkidcrafts/ and https://twitter.com/bauderpenny.

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