Lessons From Inspirational Women In STEM: “Here Are Five Things That Should Be Done to Improve the U.S. Educational System”, with Widener University President Dr. Julie E. Wollman

An Interview With Penny Bauder

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Make prisons a hotbed of education. There is such a strong spirit of hope and a desire for opportunity among many incarcerated individuals. Rehabilitation is possible and recidivism can be reduced dramatically through education that creates opportunities. As a country, we can spend less money on prisons and more on education in the long run.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie E. Wollman, PhD, President of Widener University. For more than 25 years, Dr. Julie E. Wollman has been a passionate, fearless, and effective advocate and leader in higher education. She is the tenth president of Widener University, a role she assumed in January of 2016. Guided by a relentless pursuit of excellence, she has articulated a clear vision and distinct goals for the university focused on providing an unparalleled learning experience.

Thank you for joining us! Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I started my career as an educator in 1981 when I graduated from college, and about 10 years later I became a college professor. I have also taught Sunday School, summer writing workshops, and professional development courses for teachers. Over the past 38 years, many interesting things have happened to me. The most interesting experiences have involved learning through vulnerability, humility and listening. Even as I have been in the position of teacher or “expert,” I have learned from students of all ages who are willing to speak out, share their opinions, ask thoughtful, unvarnished questions, and take risks. I think the most interesting thing about teaching any subject, at any level is that it’s unpredictable. You can plan extensively and I do — I’m a thoughtful and detailed planner — to teach well you have to be willing to take risks, relinquish the plans and live in the moment where insight is sparked. Recently I have become involved in prison education and that is among the most interesting and rewarding experiences of my life. It is humbling to see the remorse, resilience, hope, leadership, and talent among incarcerated individuals who are committed to education. I believe education is transformative and liberating and I have found that there is nowhere that is more true than in the most restrictive environment of a prison.

Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was a young professor my 1-year-old child got very sick one evening and we spent the night in the emergency room, an experience familiar to many parents. I had papers to comment on and grade that I planned to hand back in class the next morning and I grabbed them as we left the apartment because I figured we’d have a long wait and I needed to get them done. It was a long night and I was very tired the next day but my daughter was okay. I was sure I had finished going through the papers but when I handed them back the next day only half of them were commented on and graded, as my students quickly noted. I was so tired I had forgotten I never finished the job! I was embarrassed by the mistake but I learned a great lesson early in my career. Everyone has complications in their life outside of work. I try to remember that everyone in my workplace is a person who is dealing with all kinds of challenges that may not be visible but are very real and occupy their minds in addition to what we want or need them to do at work.

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

I believe that we need to graduate students who have the ability to integrate technical knowledge and skills with skills developed in the humanities and social sciences. We need biologists who appreciate the social systems shaping our interaction with the natural world. We need cybersecurity experts who write skillfully and communicate effectively with non-experts. We need robotics engineers who reflect like philosophers about the ethical implications of their work. We need nurse leaders who understand the history of health disparities and are committed to overcoming the psychological biases that result in inequitable outcomes. We need marketers who know how to use their skills to make the world a better place. We need attorneys who understand the social and cultural context in which the law is applied, so they can interpret the law’s intent in the 21st century. We need professionals, who along with outstanding competence in their fields, also bring compassion, communication skills, the curiosity and the patience to seek answers to vexing problems, and the courage to do what’s right when no one is looking. That’s the complex knowledge and nuanced perspective that Widener graduates bring to their work; that’s one important thing I’m working on right now with my colleagues at Widener.

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

I would not claim to be an authority but I have a great deal of experience in K-12 and higher education and my field of academic expertise is teaching and learning. I read voraciously, I am curious, I love to learn and I am passionate about consistent excellence. In short, I am a learner, always striving to improve. I value broad curiosity, a drive to excel, and humility over “authority.”

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?

Overall, good. Some schools and universities are outstanding but often schools’ expectations for learners are too low and access to high quality education is inequitable. The US education system is reflective of our society as a whole; it’s far from an even playing field.

Many think results are captured in ratings of schools and colleges but these rating are largely based on wealth and the past academic success of students rather than on value added, so they don’t tell us much about how our educational institutions are doing.

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

1. There is greater access to college for a more diverse group than ever before.

2. We know more than ever about how to teach effectively to promote learning and we understand that the best teaching is, at the same time, learning.

3. We understand diverse student needs and how to support them better than ever before.

4. College students today are committed, eager to learn, and want to use their education to make the world a better place.

5. Schools and colleges are modeling how to find common ground in a society that needs to see it. Widener University is an example of this.

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. Access to good K-12 education. Critical because quality education is a key factor in future health, quality of life, and overall success.

2. Early childhood education. Critical whether in a school or home setting, because early childhood is the period of most rapid development and it has the greatest impact on lifetime outcomes.

3. Effective communication about college education, outcomes and impact. Critical because the negative narrative about higher education (often coming from those in positions of power thanks to their own higher education!) misrepresents the importance, value and return on investment of higher education. A college degree provides enhanced earning power and career options, which are important to individual satisfaction, strong communities, and the strength of our economy. Widener University is a leader in the Guardians Initiative to reclaim that public trust.

4. The business model for colleges hasn’t changed much although innovation has happened in all other aspects of higher education. Critical because students seek flexibility, convenience and opportunities for lifelong learning when they need it.

5. Clarify that free college is not free; college education is costly to deliver. Critical because the slogan overlooks the fact that we will have to pay for it somehow or the quality will decline precipitously, and we will have a two-tiered education system — the one that’s low cost and low quality and the one that’s high quality and accessible only to the wealthy.

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

We could be doing better if we had an education system that gave everyone access to high quality K-12 schooling and we held high expectations for every child. The best way to engage young people in STEM is through hands-on learning so what we do in schools must truly engage them in STEM activities and labs rather than being lectured to or doing worksheets. Learners also need to see how STEM topics can be applied in the real world to understand phenomena and make a difference.

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

Talent is not gender-based. We need the best people in STEM fields; no one should be limited in pursuing an interest or guided away from a field by their gender. When they are, it’s a loss for all of us.

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?

1. Systematically challenge gender stereotypes about STEM professionals and ensure that STEM workplaces are welcoming and inclusive.

2. Develop more female STEM teachers and professors as models.

3. Offer STEM enrichment opportunities for young people such as camps and workshops and afterschool programs, to supplement strong in-school education in STEM.

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?

I answered this question above when I responded to the question about exciting projects. It’s “both-and” and must include social sciences as well as humanities. No major problem in our world can be solved without an interdisciplinary approach that brings together the sciences, social sciences and humanities.

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 all K-12 schools appropriately to achieve equity of opportunity. I think I’ve explained why, above. Without this we lose talent, fail to build strong communities and a strong economy, and fail children who are born curious and hopeful but too often have those qualities snuffed out by poor educational opportunities.

2. Make teaching a highly respected career. When I became a teacher I was told by many that I was “wasting my Harvard education.”

3. Make prisons a hotbed of education. There is such a strong spirit of hope and a desire for opportunity among many incarcerated individuals. Rehabilitation is possible and recidivism can be reduced dramatically through education that creates opportunities. As a country, we can spend less money on prisons and more on education in the long run.

4. Restructure the student loan market with federal support, to mandate reasonable interest rates that will incentivize investment in higher education. This will allow people to better their lives, as noted above.

5. Make bias disappear. Bias results in inequitable access to and treatment in educational settings. Bias is unjust and we waste a lot of talent this way.

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

“Trust your gut.” It works in all aspects of life, and is a great compass when making decisions professionally and personally because your gut feeling isn’t just uninformed intuition, it’s a reflection of an array of observations and signals telling you something.

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 🙂

Melinda Gates because of her keen awareness of global issues and the impact she’s having on access to quality healthcare, education and opportunity for all. She is principled, compassionate and visionary.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am active on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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