Innovator: To get students to study STEM, Aaron Saunders says stop calling it ‘STEM’


The economy is increasingly powered by science, technology, engineering and math. But Clearly Innovative CEO Aaron Saunders says students don’t need to excel in those subjects to participate in the innovation economy. (Lennart Andresen/For The Washington Post)

Aaron Saunders works a day job as chief executive of Clearly Innovative, a software design and development company based in the District. Then, he and several employees head to Howard University Middle School, where they teach classes and run a summer camp to engage students with science, technology, engineering and math. These fields, collectively known as STEM, are widely seen as powering the economy of the future. Yet not enough American students are studying the disciplines. To fix that, Saunders says it may be time to change the lingo.

How did the Startup Middle School program at Howard University Middle School come about?

About two years before co-founder Patrick Gusman and I did the Howard University Middle School program, I worked with DiversiTech, this other organization in D.C., and we did a youth hack-a-thon in Anacostia. There wasn’t a lot of confidence we were going to get the turnout. It was in Anacostia, we were targeting middle school kids, they had to commit to all day Saturday and half of Sunday. But, as it turned out, the event was successful.

The challenging thing was when the hack-a-thon ended, there was no follow-up. I had always wanted to have an after-school program or extended-day program, basically something where kids who are interested in technology could go to continue their passion.

I was flying back from California and happened to sit next to the founder of Startup Middle School. He was very interested in the same concepts, especially in underserved communities, and we agreed we would work together to find a solution.

Was the program well received by students and parents at first?

In the beginning I did a lot more of the classroom time. I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew a lot of the kids were aware of technology, specifically mobile technology because a lot of them have phones. I knew they had access to computers in classes. But we were trying to get them to look at those devices less as consumers and more as creators. You can build a Web site. You can build a mobile application. You can create these technologies instead of just consuming them.

The parents always seems to be extremely excited at the end. At the end of every year, we have a pitch competition and we pick winners. There are kids who get support at home for their technology endeavors, but there are other kids who don’t because their parents aren’t that tech savvy. So [those parents] are happy their [students are] getting that exposure somewhere else.

Why focus on middle school?

That was where we were given the opportunity initially. I am now heading upstream a little bit. We’re looking to extend the brand beyond just middle school. What I want to do is figure out can I use that to address some of these kids who are struggling to get through high school. I believe there is a possibility that some of these kids can be successful with technology, if given the exposure. That’s one of the areas I am focused on in the coming year.

Is it ever too early or too late to introduce students to technology education?

The short answer is no, but there is a higher likelihood of success with early exposure. It’s like the seed is planted. It’s there so later on in life when they get to college it might come back to them. They may take a computer class or design class or a business class because they have the desire to create something.

One of the challenges in some of these communities that haven’t had access to the role models who come from [technology fields] is they don’t know what to do. When I think about this digital divide, I think it’s information driven. If you don’t know anybody who is [working in technology], it’s a big leap to end up in this space.

There’s a lot of talk about racial, ethnic and gender disparities in the tech community. What’s the best way to address that early on?

What I think is the biggest challenge in STEM education programs is continued support. It’s not a hit-and-run. The Black Girls Code hack-a-thons and Yes We Code hack-a-thons are great, but if there’s no follow up it’s just going to end.

There needs to be continued support through all ages. You can’t just do a summer camp or a weekend event and think you’re going to have them prepared for these jobs. You have to provide continued support and follow up on this stuff or it’s just not going to happen.

What big lesson have you learned about STEM education since launching the program?

For me, one of the things I try to do is not call it STEM. When you say STEM, a lot of people focus on the math, and I know for a fact you don’t have to be good at math to be successful in this space. Our program isn’t just about writing code. The first half is about team building, idea creation, gathering the ideas for your project and user interface design. We believe there will be some people who are good at that and some people are good at coding. We don’t want people to believe the only way to take part in this innovation economy is as a developer.

What role can companies play in fostering STEM education?

If nothing else, at least just volunteering their time. That goes a long way because it helps kids to understand [technology industries]. I went to another career day in Prince George’s County. They picked out the kids who they thought were best prepared to understand what I was talking about. They get their ideas of what [technology careers are] like from TV and what other people say. One kid said, “I don’t want to be a software developer because I don’t want to sit in a room and stare at a computer all day.” That was his perception. Something needs to change to fill all these jobs that are out there, because whatever we’re doing now as a society isn’t working.

Meet “Innovators,” a biweekly series showcasing interesting ideas from people around the Washington area who work in business, technology and policy. Know someone with an idea worth sharing? Tells us about them at steven.overly@washpost.com

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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