APU Business Careers Careers & Learning Exploring STEM Podcast

Adding the Arts: Shifting from STEM to STEAM

Podcast featuring Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts and
Dr. Kandis Boyd WyattFaculty Member, Transportation and Logistics

The principles of STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—drive innovation and advancements in the modern world. But one critical component that is often overlooked is the arts. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU business professor Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt about the benefits of adding arts into the mix and promoting principles of STEAM both in education and in industry. Learn how focusing on STEAM can open up a new world to students to help them become vital and impactful contributors for the sustainability of the future. 

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt, full-time professor at American Public University. Our conversation today is about moving from STEM to STEAM, putting the A in STEAM. And I’m excited to talk to Kandis today because she will soon be one of the co-presenters for Exploring STEM podcast. And welcome Kandis.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Thank you so much. It’s great to be talking to you today.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. So the first thing, since we’re going to be hearing a lot more from you, which is absolutely excellent. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Sure. So in terms of American Public University, I have been a full-time professor since 2015, and I was an adjunct or a part-time professor since 2012. So I am in the School of Business and my area of research is AI or artificial intelligence. And I use artificial intelligence when it comes to transportation and logistics, when it comes to education, and when it also comes to STEM.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s excellent. One of the things I always think about, especially with AI, is how it will impact transportation and logistics. It must be exciting to look forward over the next decade and few decades just to see how that will change.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Absolutely. I think the world of STEM is evolving, even as we speak. I read a statistic that said 30% of the new jobs related to STEM in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet. So that means we’re at this crossroads where there are so many new positions that are needed or will be needed that involves science, technology, engineering, and math.

Start a degree in the School of STEM at American Public University.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s excellent. And so I do have one off-the-cuff question for you, Elon Musk, genius or guy with a brilliant idea.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I think a little bit of both. I think any entrepreneur at the time, when they come up with a great idea, he or she is sometimes viewed as a naysayer, how could you possibly think that would work? And I think a lot of the great millionaires and billionaires just started with an idea. So in that respect, I think Elan or any other person, if you have an idea, go with it, try and grow with it, and make it your passion, your vision, and your purpose.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Wonderful. It’s always interesting to watch Elan because he’s so active on social media. So I think he’s much more in the minds of people than like your average person who’s out there trying to be innovative. And so the next question I have is your background. And so can you tell us about your background in STEM and how your perspective will be added to the ongoing and robust STEM exploration?

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Absolutely. So in addition to being a full-time professor at American Public University, I have spent almost 30 years in STEM in some way, shape or form. So my undergraduate degree is in meteorology and many people used to think that that is the study of meteors, but it’s not, it’s the study of the atmosphere.

And then I have two graduate degrees, one in water resources and one in meteorology as well. And then I continued my studies with a Doctorate in public administration, as well as some certificates or certifications, I should say, in project management. As well as a certificate of logistics, transportation, and distribution.

So with that in mind, when I look back over my almost 30 years of my career, I’ve worked in some aspects of STEM in each and every one of my positions over that 30-year career.

So to just give you a couple of examples, S, S stands for science, I served as an operational meteorologist. And so that’s someone who literally creates the forecast or tells you what the weather is going to be up to 14 days in the future. So I use models and I used real-time data to predict blizzards and heat waves and tornadoes and hurricanes.

And so the T is technology. So I also served as a hydrologist, which is someone who deals with water. I had to use triangulation models as well as data to create precipitation forecast, again up to 14 days in the future, because too much water, you have floods, not enough water you end up with a drought.

In terms of engineering, I worked with an awesome team that actually built, launched and created environmental satellites. So the importance of environmental satellites is that they orbit the earth in real time and they take measurements of the atmosphere that are then ingested into operational models, which create your forecast.

I’ve also worked in climate policy. So that means taking a look at what’s happened over the past 20, 50, even a 100 years in terms of our planet and developing trends. And then based on those trends, what’s the future policies that we need to implement in order to make our world and our planet the very best that it can be?

And so the last one is M which is math. And so I also served as the acting director of a research office and a part of research is, actually we gave away money and we provided funding opportunities to potential researchers in the form of grants and cooperative agreements and contracts.

So again, as I look back over my 30 years, I’ve done something in every aspect of STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And thank you for that overview. Very fascinating. I really love the fact that you deal with weather and water. Now, when you talk to people, which one do people relate to more the predicting of weather or with water issues?

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Well, I tell people that if you’re in the United States, chances are your weather is not going to be the same from day to day to day, unless you live in Hawaii or San Diego. So I think it really resonates with the listeners if you are in the United States, weather it’s something that really relates to you.

But on a global scale water is the big deciphering factor. I mean, too much, too little water, clean drinking water, the availability of water. I mean, water is a major issue, globally. When I speak on a global scale water is that main issue. For people in the United States, it’s more local and I would say your local forecast is what drives you every day.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: A city as large as Phoenix or Las Vegas could not exist without amazing water management. You can’t have millions of people living in 120 degrees if you don’t have the water. And when you look at the scope of human history, water, like you said, has always been a big deal and it’s still a very big deal worldwide.

And as Americans, we’re so lucky that we don’t have to think about the water, typically, I should say. We want to turn on the faucet, it’s clean, mostly clean, but it’s clean enough to not to be a detriment. Now, STEM, S-T-E-M, I love the fact that at the end is math. Now, when you talk to students, do you feel that they’re hesitant towards math? When in reality, if you can have good math chops and good math skills, you can do anything.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Absolutely. What I have noticed both in the classroom and through research is that there is this inflection point in middle school. And I know for different districts, middle school may range anywhere from maybe fifth to eighth grade. So the point is, is that before that influx or that cross point from pre-K all the way up to maybe fifth grade, there’s just this huge curiosity about the world that we live in and that includes math as well. So I really feel that students are open to the possibilities, they want to learn, and they just have a lot of interest in learning science, technology, engineering, and math.

Now, we don’t know why, but in middle school there tends to be a shift. And the shift tends to be students become more internal in terms of their future aspirations, they start deciding what they want to do with their career or their future. And usually those decisions are based on the world around them.

There is a reason why most people say they want to be doctors, lawyers, entertainers, policemen and women, firemen and women, because those are a lot of the positions that you see or jobs that you see in your local communities.

And so what I am trying to do, not only through my research but through my outreach activities is to try and open the world of STEM to students, not just at that middle school level, but at the earliest possible opportunity. So that means infusing science, technology, engineering, and math into the curriculum as early as the pre-K years.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is excellent because if you think about wonderful career opportunities, pretty much every career in STEM has really good longevity as far as one’s career. And if you could really get and understand math, it’s one of those skills that can be applied to so many different jobs.

Even when I talk to people about music, that you can explain everything you hear mathematically, which is so crazy because math is the universal language. And I remember when I talked to Dr. Ahmed Naumaan, that’s one of the things we talked about was how math is the universal language.

And so the next question is how do you help people understand the importance of STEM? Now, you said you were, of course talking about younger students, but how do you instill that importance and hopefully that passion, that drive to understand it?

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Okay, that’s a great question. Whenever I’m talking to someone, regardless of their age, I try to make STEM tangential, meaning is it something that they can touch? They can see? They can feel? Is it something that is around them that they can identify with?

And so let me give you a quick example. So we have individuals who are listening to us on this podcast. Thank you so much for listening in. STEM is the foundation of everything that we do in this podcast. The S is science, so we could talk about radio waves and how you and I are literally in two different states at this very moment, talking and communicating with each other.

We could talk about the technology of what type of equipment are we using and how we have an awesome audio team that then takes this recording and turns it into the podcast that we’re listening to today.

We can talk about the engineering in terms of what needed to be created, built, manufactured in order for not only us to talk today, but the listener to be able to press a button and listen to this recording, in some cases at different speeds and different sequencings, that actually goes into math. So when you were talking about math is the universal language, well sound waves and the sequencing, or the speed of the waves, that all ties back to math.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: So understanding the speed of the podcast or the logic or the algorithms involved in actually producing the podcast, that’s all math. So that’s an example of how, if I was speaking with someone, I would take something very tangential, something that they could identify with, and I could break it down and show them that STEM is in everything we do. So if your career or your current position is not directly related to STEM, there’s some aspect of that position that involves STEM.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And so that was wonderful, just getting people to relate to it, to understand it and realize how they use it every day in their own lives. And then they’ll connect the dots and they’ll get more excited. And so the next question is, can you explain the difference between STEM and STEAM?

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Absolutely. So STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math has been around for over two decades. And I believe some of the earliest documented uses of STEM go back to the national science foundation. I think they actually called it something different like METS, M-E-T-S. And they played around with the words, but eventually it became STEM, so science, technology, engineering, and math.

So I think that had a wide following for several years. However, there was some criticism, if I can say it in that way, about just the word STEM. That STEM left out a crucial component of our world and that’s the arts. The arts are the foundation of STEM in a lot of ways, because how you communicate science, technology, engineering, and math, how you communicate that is as important as the message itself.

So the difference between STEM and STEAM is just that, is that we want to acknowledge that art or the art form or the artistic expression is an important component of STEM.

So when we think about art, some people think about drawing, painting, oratory, visual, right now we’re using auditory to communicate to people. Those are all aspects of the arts that we need for STEM, because we need to be able to communicate.

And especially when it comes to these big ideas that we have, how do you make the unseen seen and realistic and attainable and understandable? Well, it’s the art form of taking the science, technology, engineering, and math and changing it or evolving it so people are able to understand it in an easy manner.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s one of the things that Dr. Ahmed Naumaan, really focuses on in the School of STEM are the arts, philosophy, communication, literature, English, and it’s taking those ideas and applying them to STEM.

And I always like to advocate for communication. Because just like you said, if you have a great idea, that’s great, but if you don’t know how to communicate it, not much is going to happen with that great idea. And that could sometimes be the difference between somebody who might’ve actually originated an idea versus the person who then popularized or made money off of the idea.

I’m going to put you on the spot here. Can you think of an innovation or an invention that was not created by somebody, but they got most of the credit because they were the ones who were able to communicate it and/or say take it to market.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I can’t just put my finger on one person, but I know the history of this country in the United States, there were several marginalized groups that were not able to fully communicate to their highest potential. People of different racial backgrounds, people of different genders.

I am sure that if we look historically, there are probably a lot of inventions and advancements that maybe someone got the credit for that maybe it wasn’t just one person. It might’ve been a team or several individuals. So I can’t think of one name off hand, but yes, it is very common, especially in the world of science that we want to make sure that credit is given where credit is due. And we want to make sure that everyone who has that idea is given the proper acknowledgement.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s perfect. As far as like an invention, I can think of something simple like Henry Ford, he didn’t invent the car, but he really rolled it out and he helped make mass production really out there and so we always think of Henry Ford with early automobiles.

But I’m really glad you brought up marginalized communities because throughout American history and throughout history, in general, marginalized communities contribute so much to the larger dialogue, into the culture and history. But because of the way history is written are oftentimes put to the side or discounted. Now, how is it in STEM that we could learn more about the achievements of people who might’ve been marginalized in the past?

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I think that’s a great question and it goes back to stories, or another way of saying is history. The past 100, 200, 300 years, you usually had one distinct group of people writing the history of fill in the blank. And so in order to have a representative view of the past, I think that means you need to have writers who are more representative of the communities that we live in.

The second point is if we really want to get people to know more about the history of STEM, we have to bring STEM to the people. And so now there are so many ways to communicate. I mean, you can text, there’s phone, there’s video, so we should try and find ways that are low cost or no cost, that are easily accessible so that we can literally bring STEM into the classroom, as well as into the home.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: One of the things I think with technology, with social media and smartphones, which are fully accessible, there are some negatives that of course come with that. But being able to have the world’s information at your fingertips is such a potential for knowledge, that we always need to encourage everyone to really find their passion and focus on it. And then this leads me to the next question is what are the chief reasons for a focus on STEM?

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: So if we look at the global market, the most advancements, as you mentioned, are in the field of STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math. Just in the past couple of years, we’ve seen huge gains in our awareness of the atmosphere. We’ve seen huge gains in the technology that we use, how many updates do we see on cell phones and people going out to make sure that they have the latest version.

Same thing with engineering and if you look at the cars from 2020, and then go back 20 years, I mean, just the emission rates in and of itself have been revolutionized over the past couple of decades. So the point is, is that STEM is moving at such a rapid pace that we need to keep up with it. So even if it’s not a STEM issue, it’s a business issue. Business issues equate to economic issues. Economic issues equate to global issues.

So if you really want to think about it, STEM is that foundation or that initial step that we need to make, not only to be just a global competitor, but to be able to make sure that the world that we are advancing is as equitable as possible.

So STEM is a great way to, like you said, help bring communities that maybe we haven’t seen to the forefront. Communities of low socioeconomic status, communities of persons of color, communities where you have both men and women working on different projects and activities.

So STEM can open a whole new world, not just for the unknown and the future, but also for our current communities and what they can do to be sustainable and to be impactful and to be contributors to our future.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Do you think that online institutions are in a unique position to really help students understand and learn more about STEM and really help them get into the career for the next 10, 20 years?

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: So I am unequivocally biased on this question because I work at a university that is 100% online. So my short answer is yes. But, but let’s delve into this a little bit more. Again, education is that great equalizer, education is the passport to the future. Those who prepare for it today will be given all those advantages of the future. So that’s why so many of us are trying to better ourselves and try to further our interests by obtaining degrees.

So if you break that down in terms of how can we help those in low socioeconomic status communities, underserved communities, you can take online teaching and take it to places where people might not have had that opportunity. Education, one, is not exactly cheap, and for many, it’s not something that they can afford. So class by class credit by credit, if you compare the brick and mortar institutions to the online institutions, historically the online institutions have been cheaper.

So now with the pandemic, we’ve seen a great influx of more and more brick and mortar institutions transferring their skillset to the online environment. In some cases, they had to go 100% online because of the pandemic. I think some colleges and universities are still having some type of hybrid experience. But the point is, is that more and more people are starting to see the importance of on online instruction and how it can benefit people from various communities, from various backgrounds and for both genders.

So I really do think the online teaching, educational environment is an awesome tool that is not going to go away. I think it’s going to become more of a mainstay and more of a foundational component of our educational system.

And not just for secondary education or post-secondary education, but as we can see, virtual learning has actually been infused into the classroom environment all the way down to the pre-K2 level. And so I think that this is really an opportunity for us to use those mechanisms to further STEM.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that answer. And just like you said, I’m thinking of my kids, and by the time they get to college, they will have been navigating a virtual environment educationally pretty much as long as they’ve been learning.

And so online education moving forward has such an opportunity to really change lives. And although that is used so often and might sound cheesy, but it’s true. And I really like what you said about taking one class here, one class there, because if you don’t have the means to just pause your life and go to school for four years and then poof get a job, that’s okay.

So many people have worked jobs and then take a class here, take a class there, because education is really about transformation and it’s really about the long game. And the goal of really lifetime learning is really what education is about.

I have one last question, and one of your topics is AI, and according to the stats, about 38,000 people die every year from car crashes in the US and that’s not even including people who are injured. Do you think that soon we’ll get to a place where we look back at this time and we can’t even imagine that so many people died in car crashes?

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Absolutely. I believe for every tragedy or setback, you’re setting yourself up for a comeback. And so yes, that statistic that you said is real, and yes it is bleak and yes, it’s depressing. And also I feel that’s one of the many statistics that drives the industry, pun intended, in terms of research to try and make sure that we have those tools of the trade to help us have safe vehicles, to have us have safe roads, to have us have just safe intermodal transportation systems from planes to trains, to automobiles.

So going back to, how do we handle the statistic and how do we change the numbers? STEM. We really need to know the science of driving and why people get into accidents. I don’t remember the source, but I believe that most accidents happen within 10 minutes of the home. So that in itself is something that could be researched. Traffic patterns, time of day when accidents happen, the condition of the driver or drivers. And in terms of fatalities is the person in the driver’s seat, passenger seat, backseat? What time of day? These are all statistics or data that we could capture that could help us hopefully address the 38,000 that you mentioned.

So I am an optimist. I think the glass is always half full, if not overflowing. And I truly feel that with STEM, we can make advancements in so many areas and especially in the automobile area, in terms of autonomous vehicles, in terms of safe driving habits, in terms of making safe vehicles and making safe roads.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s wonderful. I really hope that by the time our kids are say our age, that they look back at the bleak days of automobiles when people died in car crashes and because of autonomous vehicles, hopefully in the next few decades, really just drive us where we need to go. And for the most part, don’t get in accidents except true accidents. That would be an absolutely wonderful thing.

And so for my last question is for those who are listening and, say are professionals that have jobs that are in the STEM field, what are different ways in which they can volunteer to get out into their community and really help their community and/or different marginalized groups that could really help and use information about STEM?

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: So, sure. I think the first thing, and of course I’m biased on this, is I think we need to have the same nomenclature or the same verbiage. I really think that there’s a move from STEM to STEAM. And so the first thing I’d want to do is encourage everyone to be a STEAM-er, or a person who’s passionate about STEAM.

Secondly, I think it’s really important to understand that education is the key to STEAM. That we need to educate all levels about the different aspects of STEAM, the different careers of STEAM, the future of STEAM as well.

And then what are the inroads? I think a big issue, and you kind of mentioned this or touched on it is, that some people just don’t know about STEAM. So how do we open the door, enhance the communication, make STEAM careers more accessible? Not just to those who are in the pipeline to obtain these positions, as you said in the next 10 or 15 years. But there’s people right now that are at a crossroads and maybe they’re thinking about another career, maybe they’re thinking about, maybe STEAM is for me, or how do I take my current skillset, my current passion and turn that into a purpose that’s related to STEAM.

So I think the openness, the transparency, having people in STEAM careers actually talk about what they’re doing, even if it’s just a podcast like this, or a quick video that you can send to a local school, so in five minutes or less, someone can understand what a fill in the blank is. I think those are just little techniques that we can do to open the doors, increase awareness and help more people become both comfortable, interested, and passionate about STEAM.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is great, really advocating for STEAM, I will update my verbiage from STEM to STEAM is really the key. And just like you said, it’s not just kids, once we’re learning in say primary secondary education, but it’s also for adults who might want to transition to a different job.

And then also just for adults who might want to have more literacy when it comes to STEAM topics. There’s so many news articles out there and different things that impact them, that with better scientific literacy and technological literacy, they’ll understand the world better. Excellent. Well, thank you so much for an absolutely wonderful conversation. Any final words?

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I just wanted to say, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for allowing me to be on the other side in terms of guest for a podcast. But my final words are the STEAM possibilities are endless. I say to everyone, you can do anything that you set your mind out to do.

I want STEAM to be something that’s attainable for anyone, like you said, from pre-K2 all the way up to someone who just wants to learn more about science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. So thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you today.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Of course. And thank you. And I’m excited for you to start hosting podcasts for the podcast channel, Exploring STEM here at American Public University.

And of course, today we were talking to Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt, full-time professor at American Public University. Our conversation today was about moving from STEM to STEAM, putting the A in STEAM. And my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and have a good day.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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