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Integrating STEAM: Preparing for Careers that Don’t Yet Exist

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Podcast featuring Dr. Kandis Boyd WyattFaculty Member, Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
Alex Fernandez, researcher and coach

Technology is driving unprecedented change in the economy and in education. In this episode, APU business professor Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt talks to Alex Fernandez, who specializes in innovation, digital inclusion, and emerging technology as a learning tool. Learn some of the factors that inhibit STEAM education like proper integration, collaboration, and technology training. Also learn about some advancements in technology that will create jobs and careers that don’t currently exist and why it’s so important for people of all ages to improve their digital literacy and be driven by curiosity and passion.

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Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Welcome to the Exploring STEM podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt. The goal of this podcast is to explore the evolving world of science, technology, engineering, and math. STEM is important because our world depends on it. The economy, our general wellbeing and our future, it’s all defined by a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering and math. So as STEM continues to evolve, this podcast will connect new innovations insights and provide inspiration by those men and women in our community who are champions of these important issues.

So today I am delighted to introduce our guest, Alex Fernandez. Alex specializes in innovation, digital inclusion, and emerging technology as a learning tool. His career is focused on finding ways to improve the tools available to teachers and students, but more importantly, to help with effective integration.

His experience as a classroom teacher, a tech coordinator, a corporate trainer, recruiter, cloud computer, engineer, and project manager all allow him to share a diverse perspective showcasing how these skills have helped him throughout his career. So Alex, welcome to the podcast and thank you for joining me.

Alex Fernandez: Kandis, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate the invitation and the opportunity to talk about such an important topic. I think there are many great things happening, so excited to chat here.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yes, absolutely. There are a lot of things happening today that address these issues surrounding STEM technology. So why don’t we start with an introduction? Can you tell us about yourself and why this topic is so dear to your heart?

Alex Fernandez: Yeah, of course. So back in about 2008, I fell into an educational role as a coordinator of technology and computer teacher in a private school. And it really kind of opened my eyes working with pre-kindergarten to eighth grade across a variety of subjects, every subject that was taught in the building, for that matter.

And throughout my time there, I became enamored with things like game-based learning tools and interactive education, ways that educational technology was being designed to kind of introduce engagement and motivation, and really kind of change the dynamic of how things were taught, not necessarily what was being taught.

So a lot of experimenting with three-dimensional design tools and free and readily available tools the students were able to take home with them. Using collaborative tools, like Google Drive, which was Google Docs at time, building websites with Google sites and using SketchUp, which was acquired by Google around that time as well. All of which really introduced some amazing opportunities for kids to get hands-on, explore relevant topics, and really dive into the jobs and careers of tomorrow, not necessarily just today and yesterday.

So it was really encouraging and just exciting. And one of those things where I took a huge pay cut and I worked more hours than I had ever worked, but I’ll tell you, I was more satisfied than I’d ever been in my career when I found that passion, in the end, that excitement.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah, I can agree with you. I think passion sometimes is not exactly attached to a paycheck. So I agree with you that some of the things that make us the most excited may not exactly have the highest dollar amount associated with them. So let’s talk about some challenges you had in this realm of STEM technology. Can you talk about what challenges you encountered when teaching STEM to youth?

Alex Fernandez: Yeah, that’s a very good question. And essentially what I encountered as I went from the private school into the public school system as a substitute, I branched out and worked in many different grade levels and many different schools across the city of Buffalo.

In Western New York, there’s such a dynamic and diverse population. There are pockets of schools that are multi-lingual or Spanish dominant. There are diverse populations from all over the world who are congregating in some international schools. And some specialized schools that work with special needs.

So really kind of the lack of access, the lack of integration, and the inconsistency amongst these buildings was one of the things that I really found concerning. And there was not enough training. A lot of dollars were spent on technology, whether it be hardware or software, but there was a big component missing on how well it’s taught and integrated into the function as a teacher or simplified for that teacher.

So digital inclusion, the digital divide, significant impacts to access for the students, and which kind of hinders them with awareness for future careers and job readiness, along with many other things.

The first battle that many of these educational institutions are battling is with budget, and the second is with collaboration and real interdisciplinary, cross-curricular project-based work that really introduces the opportunity for the breakdown of silos and the overlapping of rubrics. So that three or four teachers can work on one project and all get something that’s substantial out of it, both from learning objectives, as well as data that they need to basically assure that there is the retention levels that they need with the content they’re trying to get across. So budget and access, I’d say are the two that I’ve seen really hindering.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I like what you also said earlier. Yes, budget is important, access is important, but it’s also the teachers. We need to make sure that they’re trained properly so that they can pass on these key concepts. We need to have this trainer mentality or this teach-the-teacher mentality, if you want to extrapolate that. How do you communicate the connection between STEM education, both in and outside of the classroom?

Alex Fernandez: Well I think it’s interesting, because it really ties into cross-functional teams and interdisciplinary roles where more and more people are forced to work with people outside of their specialization in collaboration to achieve a larger goal.

So I’m actually very adamant about the fact that there really is no STEM without the A in STEAM. And I’ve been an arts integrator and an arts advocate for many years. I’ve worked for young audiences as well as independently to really advocate for the importance of the creative element design and how that overlaps into mathematics and engineering and science.

And what I mean by this is that the artist and the creative element is something that’s really included in all of us. And if you think about the scientists, the mathematicians and the engineers who discover things and push the boundaries of a particular knowledge base. It’s those, especially who helped us advance their fields of studies, and really kind of innovate and create better visualizations of what was.

We look at things like gears in nature and the recent discovery of showing how man didn’t even realize how complex gears and things like that were integrated into certain insects. And they were able to get such detailed imagery now that they take a look at things that we thought these mechanical mechanisms were a design of man. And more and more as we learn about mathematics and see what nature has created, we realize we’re replicating these mathematical solutions that have just come about through evolution. So, really amazing.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah, it is really amazing. And I want to touch on something you said earlier. The term STEM has been around for two, maybe even three decades. But like you said, there’s so many people that are realizing that the A was missing in STEM, and we have evolved from STEM to STEAM. So you’re absolutely right, and I’ll start using the word STEAM as we continue with our conversation.

So let’s try and connect the classroom to the real world. What are some basic academic practices and theories that are taught in the classroom for STEAM technology in the real world?

Alex Fernandez: That’s a great question. So essentially with some of the experiences that I’ve had, and like user experience, and user interface design, and product development, you’re constantly working with teams who are looking at things through different lenses.

And I think STEM and STEAM in itself really offers you the opportunity to help share those different lenses. The way an artist looks at a project is going to be different than somebody who’s scientifically trying to analyze it, or deconstruct, or reproduce it. And an engineer may be looking at it from a completely different perspective. And then the mathematician may have multiple problems that they visualize in that problem who can kind of contribute to that.

So having these different mindsets and understanding that variety of perspective, and how they overlap and contribute to each other is critically important. And that is one of the things that I’ve experienced, especially in my most recent role as a product manager in educational technology.

The dynamics of working with literally every single department across the organization and having to really understand how to communicate things in different ways, based on both priorities, and understandings and focal points. But also being able to consume that information, even though it may not be your specialty area, the understanding of the interconnections and connective tissue between these subjects are really the strength in the overall, I think end result, of whatever product or service comes about. And it really comes down to diversity.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah, it really does come down to diversity. That’s an excellent point that you made. So I’m going to go back to something you said a couple of questions ago, it was the topic of training. And I said, “Oh, we need a train the trainer concept, or a teach the teacher concept.” In a perfect world, what training would be needed to make the public more aware of the importance of STEM and STEAM technology?

Alex Fernandez: I think really kind of understanding, not just the now, but the tomorrow is so critically important. Especially for the youth of today, knowing the rapid pace at which technology is advancing, we constantly have to have that focus on the careers that don’t exist yet. And highlighting the importance of just digital literacy and digital inclusion, making sure that people have an understanding of where tech is today and where it will be in the future. Without the exposure to these technologies, it’s very difficult for students and teachers even to envision themselves in roles that might not exist.

And then teachers, the training needs to not just be focused on the teachers. I think certain students have more than enough capability to support the generation of instructional environments, instructional content and instructional interactives. And I think students should be empowered to start helping teachers create content.

And I think there are opportunities when there are professional developments where you’re not doing a PD with only teachers in the room, you have select students that have been brought out, given then the opportunity to practice these skills in a relevant and purposeful setting.

Take the skills that they’ve learned in Minecraft, and Roblox, and code.org and Scratch, and put it into a real-world scenario. And this is a trade. This is a skill where there are jobs building worlds now, both two dimensional, three-dimensional, in virtual reality. So it’s ever expanding.

And I think the training is not necessarily unit directional. It doesn’t need to be just from the top down, the way we historically have transferred knowledge and passed on. Information has been, the teacher is somewhat the harvester of the information and they relay it down to the students.

But you find now in these times and days where students are often teaching the teachers or supporting the teachers. As technology is advancing so fast and students have a natural aptitude and competency in these areas, we have to focus the training on including them as well.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I don’t want to give any company a plug, but you named a couple of games that my kids play on a regular basis. And you’re absolutely right. So if they see it as a game, they see it as fun, they’re actually building skills that they can use and build on, when it comes to STEM into STEAM. So I think that’s a really great point to emphasize. This is an odd question, but does every person possess the skills to create or execute a STEM or STEAM technology?

Alex Fernandez: Yeah. I mean, I think we don’t realize how much STEM and STEAM are in our everyday lives. I mean, even when you’re just cooking food and making the right balance of ingredients, following mathematical formulas, this is STEM.

But when you really talk about the use of these skills and the focus of these skills and creating the activities, I think the more important question to ask is whether or not people will find joy and excitement in the STEM and STEAM activities. But especially for those who are in pursuit of who they want to be when they grow up, always being inquisitive, always being curious and really doing some soul searching for the thing that you love, the thing that doesn’t feel like work.

Because I will tell you from personal experience, when you’re doing those things, everything else falls away. And it’s one of those feelings that you know you’re meant to do something when you are put in that situation. It’s something that not everybody gets the opportunity to come across, and I would do anything in my power to be able to do that full-time.

Right now it’s mostly consulting, and freelance, and independent contracting and things of that nature. But find what you love, find something you’re truly triggered and passionate about, and try to focus maybe a career pursuit that connects to that in some way, shape or form. Or at least is in some way adjacent, and you’ll get a lot more out of what you do in your day to day.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I could not agree with you more. When we think about career, I think sometimes we might need to step back and just rethink what that means. And like you said, maybe it’s not a career, but you’re pursuing your passion. And like you said, if it’s really your passion, it’s not going to feel like a job or a career. It’s going to just feel like you’re having fun over and over again.

So speaking of that, let’s talk long-term. How do you ensure that STEM technology or STEAM technology continues for years and years? In other words, what is a way to help promote STEM long-term?

Alex Fernandez: I think looking at things like productivity, collaboration and innovation. I say those three things because there are kind of three areas of focus that I have. One being 3D printing and 3D printing technology, three-dimensional design, a technology that’s been around since 1986, not very new.

And then the other is XR technology. So that’s including AR, or augmented reality, which I’ve been involved in for almost 10 years, and then virtual reality, which I’ve been in for about eight years. Really the advancement of those types of technologies. And VR, again, since 1985 used by NASA. These technologies are not new. They’ve been optimized and brought to the point where a $300 headset on my head can now track my hands and allow me to walk around in a room and interact with people across the globe.

Just this morning I was in a beta test working on kind of evaluating a new release for the Oculus Quest called Tvori and it does both design inside of virtual reality in a room with multiple people, I was with people from all across the globe. And we were just making 3D models, and talking about it, and having a design sprint and really kind of experimenting with a tool that’s not yet released.

So I think the tech that is going to create the workflows of tomorrow is going to be critical for people to be able to kind of jump into those careers that don’t exist yet. Looking at augmented reality visors, the way that they’re impacting and influencing design, and the automotive industry, and the aeronautics industry and so many other types of practical applications.

I think we’re only touching the tip of the iceberg with respect to immersive media, immersive and interactive content that really includes the ability to use our hands, to walk around things, to scale things, and to get inside of them in a way that we never could before.

Even just drawing tools like Tilt Brush was an absolutely new medium brought to artists that had never been done before. An artist could never walk around and draw something, and then literally walk through their painting before. And that was brought to us and is continuing to evolve with a wide variety of tools that are hitting the market, and allowing people to design interactions and create things in ways that were never done before.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Wow. I think those are all really great things to think about as we’re trying to chart the future and make sure the next generation is involved in this STEM and STEAM revolution. So let’s get back to the conversation. Let’s talk about you, because I know you have been immersed in this area for years. So what’s your personal goal or vision when it comes to the future of STEM and STEAM technology?

Alex Fernandez: My personal focus is, like I said, around a couple of those technologies and really being at the cutting and bleeding edge of what is XR learning for both content and educational technology. I think there are so many opportunities to be involved in quality assurance testing, user testing, play testing, and creating immersive learning environments. And showing people how to create and collaborate in social settings where you’re working with others is really an area of focus that I want to have.

I’ve had the opportunity to participate in an early release invite only beta through Facebook Reality Labs called Horizon, and it’s on the Oculus Quest and you build with other people. And since September I’ve built four worlds and been able to bring in collaborators to do all kinds of scripting. Was selected to be highlighted and featured in the plaza of their world, their main world. And it’s just wild to me how much it improved the design process, and how much I was able to use subject matter experts and get some amazing collaboration in a real short amount of time.

And the ramp up to pick up these tools and be able to do something was so short, and it just felt intuitive on top of this social aspect of these tools really offering the ability to feel a sense of presence with people.

And in these times where we are cooped up in so many Zoom meeting, you can only take so many Zoom meetings, and it’s great to be able to share a space with other people and have a little bit of that body language and personal expression that comes through, while creating something together and just letting your brain pour out in front of other people.

It’s been an exciting kind of discovery, and I’d like to continue to be a subject matter expert and a resource to these companies that are evolving tools, and help educators find ways to make relevant and purposeful inclusions of this in their day to day.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: The fact that you built four worlds, I think that definitely signifies what you mentioned as a subject matter expert. That takes a lot of time and energy. So how do you connect STEM and STEAM to the classroom? Because as you mentioned, sometimes there’s some budget challenges. Sometimes we have challenges with educators understanding the importance of this subject. So how do you make that connection?

Alex Fernandez: Yeah. So I think going back to my early days in IT, like you said, my degree is originally in business and international business. And so I went into IT in 2002. Decided to kind of change and shift gears and drop out of school right towards the end. And it was the opportunity to be able to speak both the boardroom speak and the server room speak, and that interconnection. The connective tissue and the creating of collaboration, and kind of maybe rephrasing communications to help things be both received in a more efficient way. And that translated into an efficiency that I had in many other environments.

And when I was in education, it was between the subject areas. It was taking the math teacher and the science teacher, and then maybe the English teacher and saying, “Okay, we’re going to do a project together. Tell me what you’re teaching for the next two months.”

I would comb through their objectives, and then find that connective tissue and then bring them together with purpose. And I think that is the way to connect it to the classroom. It’s breaking down the silos, it’s forcing teachers to work together, and then including the students in that process, in the creation of the learning materials, in the creation of the learning environments, in the creation of the learning interactives.

These kids are super talented. There are kids who will find careers in this type of content creation area and excel. But giving them the opportunity to do it with purpose, to contribute to something of substance, to maybe get some extra credit, and to feel like a contributor to hopefully somebody that they respect and they look up to, and they’re actually taking lessons away from.

And I think that’s the critical element is doing anything and everything that we can do to create interdisciplinary projects, cross-functional projects, because that’s what the real world is like. That’s what you’re going to find in the workforce in almost any industry.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah. You’ve totally been a connector, because just what you said, trying to connect the different aspects of STEAM, science, technology, engineering, arts and math, that in itself can sometimes be challenging because we have this silo effect. And I like what you said, that the future is more interdisciplinary than we tend to think, that you’re going to be using more than just one area. What can people learn from you and your years of expertise when it comes to pursuing a career in STEM or STEAM?

Alex Fernandez: That’s the lesson we continue to learn more about as we go through life. But I guess I could sum it up to say that it’s okay to not be sure what you want. It’s okay that it takes a while. And it’s important to stay current with everything that you are interested, and engaged in, or want to pursue, whether it be hardware or software, or something else.

And really, it boils down to asking yourself why? Why are you doing this? Why are you motivated? What are you trying to solve? What does it bring to you or the others who are involved in it? I did a talk a few years back at Creative Mornings called the Flavors of Why, and it had to do with curiosity and how it guided my career.

And people think it was extremely turbulent because I’ve had 35, maybe 40 jobs in five industries. I’ve studied at four universities. I’ve explored because I get bored quickly. I have adult ADHD and was undiagnosed as a kid. And if I’m not challenged, I will pursue something that challenges me or excites me. And the more that I find those things that I’m really excited about, I’m really into, the less it feels like work.

And if you can find that balance where, even if it’s just a part-time element, like your side hustle or whatever you want to call it, have that element in your life and find ways to keep it there. It may not be easy, but if you put in the effort to find opportunities, create bridges and just immerse yourself, that’s really the best advice that I could give you. Ask why you’re doing things and don’t be afraid to change directions.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah. I like that. Ask questions, be flexible, be willing to change directions. I think that is true for just about any career, but especially if you’re trying to pursue STEM or STEAM. Let’s talk about a typical day for you. How do your daily activities relate to STEM and STEAM?

Alex Fernandez: I would say at least for the past six months it’s been with some of the workshops that I run, introducing things like three-dimensional design, to whether it be organizations in New York City, or the Girl Scouts in Texas, or some local schools and community programs here.

And then, really the heavy area of focus I brought up before was world and content creation in virtual reality. But not just world and content creation, but the creation that happens in a VR headset. It’s much more organic. It’s much more like sculpting. When you’re with other people, I’ve found that it’s just a very unique experience. You can get a lot out of the collaboration, but you can also learn at such a rapid pace, because you’re learning while doing, while seeing, while failing, while having other people to help you get over hurdles and get around brick walls when you need to.

And that is what my daily life is like. I go in, and I’ll go into the social arena, I’ll connect with some of the people that I’ve met over the time, I’ll contribute to maybe one or two other worlds that other people have brought me in on as a collaborator. And then I’ll put some time into one of the projects that I’m working on for myself.

And really staying connected to what these tools are like, helping test the new tools that will be released in the near future. My day is finding the toys that haven’t hit the stores yet and helping kick the tires to find out whether or not they’re working and helping them improve the user experience, the user interface, or just maybe connecting some purpose to it.

So I’ve even found some games where taking math and wrapping it into a game that already exists, and the CEO loved the idea and they’re making a second version that they’re targeting education with now. It’s just giving a little idea like that and watching it become something is amazing.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah. Especially when it comes to kids, trying to make something fun, it totally changes the educational experience. So I agree with you, that we just sometimes need to think or rethink about how we communicate this information.

So we talked about this before, but I think this is a really important point that we want our listeners to hear. And that is moving from STEM to STEAM. Or another way of saying it is, why is there a need for A, for emphasizing the arts? So can you talk about how the arts relate to other aspects of STEAM?

Alex Fernandez: I think it really goes to the artist and that creative element inside of us. And arts integration having been kind of at the core of my career in ed tech integration, it’s really about looking at the evolution, the discoveries, the creativity that pushed the boundaries of, whether it be knowledge basis, or really finding more efficient ways to do things, or solving problems that really impact society.

There needed to be an artist inside of the engineer, the scientists, the mathematician, whoever it was that pushed the boundaries of that idea or that particular area of kind of knowledge and making it something that they had an impact on. And whether it be something related to aesthetics, or something related to purpose, something related to humanity, it’s in everyone.

And creativity is something that stems from a wide variety of catalysts, but if it’s not involved or integrated, things become stagnant. If we continue to think a way just because we’ve thought that way, we’ll never find anything new. And really it’s that search and that discovery for the new, and that curiosity that should be inside of all of us.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Absolutely. There’s a phrase that just came to mind as you said that. “If you continue to do what you’ve always done, you’ll continue to get what you always got.” I think when it comes to STEM and STEAM, we just need to rethink what our world is and how we’re going to live in it.

I thank you so much, Alex, for this conversation today. So I know we’re wrapping up, but one more question for you. What are some resources you would recommend to help individuals learn more about stem technology?

Alex Fernandez: Throw yourself in it. Volunteer, find any way that you can participate, experience, experiment, whether it be with experiments in your home and your family, your friends, wherever possible. If you can go to things like maker fairs, if you can volunteer at your local library or community center, if they have a maker-space or anything like that.

Follow what people are doing in current times, and that can be done a variety of ways. There are so much out there on social media. I particularly use LinkedIn to stay current with innovative companies and what’s going on. And there are a couple of great groups, as well as extensive network that I’ve collected over the years to really kind of keep me aware of what’s going on. And when you find something that’s interesting to you, latch onto it, dive into it, and see how you can become a part of the movement.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Well, Alex, thank you for sharing your expertise and your perspective on this issue. And thanks again for joining me today for this episode of Exploring STEM.

Alex Fernandez: Absolutely. It was my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me and have a wonderful day. And same to all of your audience.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Awesome. Well, thanks again, Alex. And yes, thank you to our listeners for joining us. So as a reminder, you can learn more about these topics by signing up for American Public University’s bi-monthly newsletter. So until our next podcast, be well and be safe.

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, has over 25 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

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