As a young engineer working in shipbuilding for the Department of Defense, Monica Nichols relied heavily on her interdisciplinary education in science, technology, engineering, and math to solve both technical and business problems. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt talks to Monica about the value of her STEAM and business education and how it inspired her to start Pink Space Theory, a company focused on bringing STEAM education to youth. Learn the importance of an interdisciplinary education, and how STEAM can instill a strong work ethic in students as they apply critical thinking and diverse skills to solve complex problems.
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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. Our 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 and insights and provide inspiration by those men and women in our community who are champions of these important issues.
So today we’re going to broaden this discussion and we’re even going to talk a little bit about adding “A” to STEM and focusing on the connection between STEAM and STEM in the real world. So today I am delighted to introduce our guest Monica Nichols, who is the CEO of Pink Space Theory. This group exposes, engages and empowers underserved and underrepresented youth with STEAM learning experiences to prepare them for their future career paths and passions. Pink Space Theory provides youth with student-centered, hands-on STEAM programs that build skills for greater success in school and their professional journey. So Monica, welcome to the podcast and thank you for joining me.
Monica Nichols: Hi, Kandis. Thank you for having me. I’m looking forward to our discussion today.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Oh, so am I. Thank you so much. So let’s get started. As you can tell, there are so many critical conversations happening today surrounding STEAM. So can you start the conversation by just telling us a little bit about yourself and why the STEAM topic is so dear to your heart?
Monica Nichols: Sure. I’ve worked for a number of military and civilian agencies, including the Department of the Navy, as well as the Department of Homeland Security and the technology and chip-building space for over 25 plus years. So I truly understand the importance of creating a pipeline of bright, energetic, and diverse group of young people that are interested in STEAM.
Because of that, I’m very passionate about doing my part through Pink Space Theory to make sure all students have the opportunity to experience and explore the wonderful world of science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math. So yes, we emphasize the arts in our STEAM programs. And the reason is that we think it is equally important to balance analysis with creativity and curiosity, and certainly STEM teaches students to be curious, ask questions, how to be innovative and how to create, which are all important skills our students need to be successful in any career field. And for us, we believe that by offering our virtual STEM activities, they help to facilitate students’ growth in these areas, which has been very exciting and rewarding for us.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Wow, that’s so great. I have two kids, so I love the fact that you’re trying to do new and innovative things. And let’s be honest, we’re still in a pandemic at the time of this recording. So you mentioned the word “virtual,” which I think is essential just to make sure that people are safe as they’re continuing this creative learning environment. So let’s talk a little bit more about your background. You said that you worked in the DoD as a civilian, is that correct?
Monica Nichols: Yes. So I actually worked as a civilian for the Department of Defense, specifically the Department of the Navy for about 15 years. So in essence, I started my professional STEAM career through an internship with the Navy working on a joint international communications program.
For me, it was the ideal opportunity just coming out of college. It was a great way to grow leadership and STEAM skills early on in my career. So after graduating from the Navy’s three year intern program, I was able to land a position as a project engineer, working on small modernization projects for the Navy service craft fleet.
Of course, as I’ve matured through my professional journey, I was able to land a couple of coveted positions working or major ship acquisition programs. I worked on the next generation of aircraft carriers and the joint Marine Army and Navy high-speed vessel program.
So through these programs, I was fortunate enough to work with some amazing men and women, sailors, Marines, and soldiers. I’m always proud to share the fact that a group of colleagues and I were afforded the chance to travel on a cargo plane and land on an aircraft carrier while it was transiting the Atlantic ocean. So that was definitely one of my “Wow” career moments working for the Department of Defense.
So also my familiarity with the military extends beyond the workplace. My husband actually was in the Marine Corps and I have several family members who also served in the Army and with the Navy. So yes, I’m very familiar and fond of the military.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Wow. That’s amazing. And you definitely have STEAM throughout your career and throughout the people who are around you as well. So that is awesome. And landing on an air carrier, that’s exciting. So thank you for sharing that with us. So at American Public University, we have a large group of our student population who are adult learners. So what would you say to them about how STEAM shaped your career?
Monica Nichols: Yes, for me having a STEAM educational background coupled with the right work experiences have really solidified what I see as the main benefit of having an interdisciplinary background that integrates STEAM concepts that is to be able to solve problems.
I think throughout my career, one of the most common and frequent tasks that I have had no matter the position is to be able to make recommendations to solve problems. And as a young engineer working in shipbuilding, I realized that making recommendations is not a black and white decision for the most part, there are a lot of gray areas that you have to kind of wade through. So going back to my career in ship building, I learned early on that ship building is a very complex and heavily integrated process and it requires close coordination across different functional expertise in subjects. And because of that, you have to be mindful when it comes to making decisions since there are so many variables and dependencies that you have to consider.
So if you’ve ever researched how much it costs to build a ship, you will see that it’s not cheap. So every decision must be made with careful thought and consideration of how that decision can impact the outcome both from a technical as well as a programmatic standpoint.
And I think having a STEAM background really helped me not only understand ship building from a technical standpoint, but also from a business and management perspective. I believe my STEM background, which includes a combination of engineering and business courses gave me the skills to see the importance of looking at problems and solutions through an interdisciplinary lens thus being able to ask the right questions, to get the right level of information, to analyze, harmonize, and synthesize links between different functional disciplines to help formulate the appropriate recommendations with pros and cons to support each.
And as we know, problems are never one dimensional. So having the ability to dissect them and understand how one area may impact the other, not just from a technical standpoint, but from a cost schedule and performance, also known as business perspective, is equally important.
What is the best conduit for teaching technical and management skills in tandem in order to make both good engineering and business decisions? Of course, I think it’s having a STEAM educational background. So for me, STEAM has really helped shape my critical thinking skills as well as hone my decision-making abilities throughout my career.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Wow. That is awesome. I like what you said. You said, you need to know how to ask the right questions because that will actually guide your discussions. And you said many of the answers or solutions are interdisciplinary in nature. So I think that’s really something our listeners will take away with them.
You touched on science, technology, you talked about the business aspect of making ships, which is the math. So let’s go back to the “E” the engineering. So how would you relate or how would you explain the engineering aspect of STEAM?
Monica Nichols: Yes. So just to tell you a little bit about my background as it relates to my education. So I do have a Bachelor’s in Engineering Arts from Michigan State University also have a Master’s degree in Systems Engineering from Virginia Tech. And I also have a Master’s in Education specifically in curriculum and instruction with a STEM focus.
So for me, both of my engineering degrees are interdisciplinary, which have been very beneficial in helping me to make those connections between ideas and concepts across different disciplinary boundaries. Both engineering programs had a goal of combining the technical strengths of engineering with the realism of business acumen in order to graduate individuals who are technically sound and business-bound engineers who are ready to tackle complex problems. And so for me, I think having the engineering background, taking those traditional STEAM courses, such as differential equations, statistics, physics, hydrodynamics, civil engineering, coupled with business classes was ideal for me.
And that we know that STEAM education is really about exposing learners to multiple layers of thinking. And so subjects such as engineering should not just be focused in isolation, we should look at it in terms of science, technology, art, and math. So with STEAM subjects such as science and technology aren’t really valued more than the arts or math, but also just are presented in relationship with one another.
And for me, my engineering education allowed me to apply the knowledge gain in one discipline across multiple disciplines in order to deepen my learning. So, in essence, integrating many different engineering specialties into a total engineering manage perspective is really what’s the STEAM education is all about.
So it’s not just having a deep dive into civil engineering, STEAM education allows you to sample a multitude of engineering specialties so that you can have a well-rounded understanding of engineering from both civil, both mechanical, both electrical, because once again, problems are never one dimensional they’re multidimensional, so having that diverse engineering background was really ideal for me.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Wow. That is an awesome way to think about STEAM. So thank you for that. So again, you are the CEO of Pink Space Theory. So let’s talk about that for a little bit, because you transitioned from, what, 15 years as a civilian in the federal government to owning your own company. And I’m sure there were some bumps in the road along the way. So can you talk about some of the challenges you encountered when you were trying to start your own company or when you were trying to start teaching STEAM to youth?
Monica Nichols: Well, yes, for me, actually, I still work full time for the federal government. And so, of course, it’s a balance between your full-time position and your full-time passion. So some of the challenges deal with having the time to do all that you need to do to further your business. So thankfully I have some volunteers across the country actually to really help us build Pink Space Theory out.
And so the challenge is resources and making the time available to help build the organization from scratch, but has been very rewarding for me because it has shown me that the area that I’m currently in, in program management, really helped me to see what needs to be done in order to bring an idea to fruition. Because it’s all about understanding how you get people with the right skills together to help fulfill your dream and goal. Because once again, I’m always of the opinion that teamwork makes the dream work. And I truly believe that two heads are better than one.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: So in a perfect world, what training would be needed to make youth more aware of the importance of STEAM?
Monica Nichols: I would think if I had a magic wand and I could wave it and suddenly appear the perfect training for students to see the importance of STEAM. I would say that I would want students to get the opportunity to work with a STEAM professional on a real-world challenge.
So our particular organization, we’ve been in contact with one of the industry leaders in STEAM, as well as in digital fabrication. And they have a program that we will love to bring to the Washington DC area. It’s a two-year program that matches an adult STEAM professional with a student to kind of cold learn about digital fabrication technologies, software, and design skills.
So the student and the professional get an opportunity to work on a number of digital fabrication projects, including 3D printing, laser cutting, and electronics. And then after completing a number of basic projects and earning their certifications, the mentoring pairs would then begin collaborating on a capstone project.
And so for the second year of the program, the pair they’ll get an opportunity to focus on designing and creating something that will have an impact in their respective community. This, in my opinion, gives students a chance to see how STEAM really impacts the community that they live in plus acquire some much needed technological skills to include digital design, which I so truly love. So this is my wish to make sure all students have the training opportunity to build something that helps address an immediate community need to see how STEAM can make a huge impact on the community that they live in.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah, and if you don’t mind me saying, Monica, you addressed another need as well, just by your description. You’ve made STEAM fun and interactive. I think that is a hard thing to achieve as well. So not only are you providing the resource, but you’re doing so in a fun and interactive way to actually make tomorrow’s leaders want to pursue these careers in STEAM.
And so with that thought, let me also tell you something that I’ve heard as a mother of two is that STEAM is the future, and you’ve got to get your kids into STEAM. And these are the careers that everybody’s going to covet in the next 10, 15, 20 years. They’re going to be all STEAM careers. So Monica does every person possess the skills to create and execute STEAM activities? In other words, is every person STEAM material?
Monica Nichols: So I believe everyone is STEAM material if they have the desire and if they’re willing to work hard. So for me, my own personal STEAM journey and challenges was one of the reasons why I started Pink Space Theory. So when I entered college at Michigan State University, I found myself in remedial math. So what that meant is that my math skills were below average, despite the fact that in high school, I ranked within the top 10% of my high school class. So I attribute some of the challenges in my first year of college to the fact that I personally decided not to take math or science during my senior year, which of course, I found out later was a huge mistake.
So starting off my journey to becoming an engineer seemed bleak. If I wanted to become an engineer, I could either give up or work hard to overcome what some would see as an instant showstopper. So I made the decision early on that I wasn’t going to let my struggles with math stop my dream.
So for me, instilling a sense of grit, perseverance in today’s youth is important to me based on my personal challenges. So I want students to know that you don’t have to be a math whiz to pursue a degree in STEAM. You just need to be willing to put in the work.
So for me, I think that if a student or a child is interested in STEAM and his or her grades, aren’t up to par or they have challenges in a certain area, don’t give up. If you’re willing to do what you need to do in order to overcome the challenge, then you too can become an engineer or a scientist or a computer scientist. So, for me, I think everyone has the potential if you are willing to put in the work to make it happen.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah, that’s really eye-opening. And I hope our listeners really take that nugget of wisdom with them that it’s not necessarily the “smartest person,” but it’s the person who perseveres, the person who has that inner drive and keeps going and keeps working toward it. And just realizes that there’s going to be bumps in the road here and there, but if you keep going, you’re going to make it. So thank you so much for that.
So you’ve talked a lot with us today. You’ve talked about how to make STEAM fun and interactive. You’ve talked about your own goals when it comes to Pink Space Theory, and you’ve even talked about how you connect STEAM in the classroom. So what can people pursuing careers in STEAM learn from your expertise?
Monica Nichols: So for me, what individuals can learn is that your passion and your interest in STEM will definitely evolve over time. If you were to ask me 25 years ago, what I thought I would be doing in the future, I don’t think I would have said starting a nonprofit to spark students’ interest and curiosity in STEAM.
In fact, the word STEAM would not have even come out of my mouth. Why? Because STEAM was called something else for me, it was called engineering arts. So I’m confident that 20 years from now STEAM will get a new name and an upgrade. I say all of that to make the point that change is inevitable, right? STEAM will change and your passions and your interest in it will change over time. It’s how you deal with that change is what will guide you throughout your career, which will ultimately choose your journey and be your story.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: So you provided an excellent segue to our next question, because the name of this podcast is Exploring STEM. And as I just heard you say the new word or the new buzz word is STEAM and probably in the next 10 years is going to be a new buzzword. So can you talk about the A that distinguishes STEM from STEAM or talk about why we need to evolve from STEM to STEAM.
Monica Nichols: Yes. Our organization focuses on STEAM and the reason being is that we think it’s equally important to balance analysis with creativity and those other soft skills, which are so much needed in the workplace. So we see arts as a way to excite and engage students’ strengths to increase motivation and the probability of STEAM career success.
So I just recently met a young lady who studied theater in high school. She enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College as an art major, but after her first year, she decided to change her major to computer science. She told me that art still is her passion. And so the question becomes, “Well, how did she transition from this art major to a computer science major?”
Her story starts first with the fact that she was a theater geek, as she called herself back in her high school. She loved to paint, she loved fine arts, and she’s also very passionate about creative writing. And so as you can see, her strengths clearly fall on the art side. So what made her transition from arts to computer science?
So for her, she said that she started tutoring in math and fell in love with it despite the fact that she was intimidated by it in high school. She then took a computer science class at Northern Virginia Community College, and immediately fell in love with computer science. And she now can use her creative side to build coding programs that are indeed very vibrant and whimsical. So I really love her story because I think it really emphasizes why there is a need to focus on the arts.
So we know that when you’re designing a new computer programming, the STEM part is well understood. That’s the ones and that’s the zeros of how to make the code work. But what about the art piece? When it comes to looking at modern video games, there is a need to look at the creative part of it. The creative sound design, the 3D modeling, the voice acting, the directing. Just that visual piece that helps to give those users something to look forward to when they’re actually doing their video game.
So the art piece is very much as important when it comes to making sure that the coding programs are functional. So it adds that layer where we’re making sure that what the user sees is actually something visually appealing to them. So there’s a need to focus on the art and STEM simultaneously.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Absolutely. Monica, I really love the example that you offered. And just like you said, you loved this person’s thought and thought process. I have appreciated just learning more today about your thought process as we continue to evolve from STEM to STEAM and, and the interdisciplinary activities that you are providing through Pink Space Theory. So I do have one more question for you for our listeners. What are some resources you would recommend to help individuals learn more about STEAM?
Monica Nichols: Yes. What are my favorite resources is the book “From STEM to STEAM” by David Sousa and Tom Pilecki. Book does a really great job on explaining the why behind the movement from STEM to STEAM. So both of those individuals come from different backgrounds, but they really do a good job by looking at the neuroscience piece where Tom takes a look at the arts piece. The bonus for me is that the book also includes some really great lessons that center around STEAM for students in grades K-12. One of the suggestions the book makes is for art teachers and STEM teachers to collaborate on lessons, each bringing their subject matter expertise and strengths to design a well-integrated STEAM lesson. This of course is another example of how I think the slogan “teamwork makes the dream work” really hits home.
I also would recommend TeachEngineering is also one of my favorites. It’s a digital library database of teacher tested standard-based content that teachers in grades K-12 could use. It does a really good job of mapping the lessons to educational content standards, as well as it uses materials that you can find readily available. And they’re pretty much, for the most part, usually inexpensive.
So those are just a couple of my favorites that I would definitely recommend to your user group that they could tap into. And then lastly, I think I would be remiss at not saying that the International Society for Technology and Education is also a great resource to tap in on when you’re looking to learn more about STEAM awareness.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: All right, those are wonderful resources. So Monica, thank you so much. I really appreciated the time that we spent today to learn more about STEAM and also Pink Space Theory. And just thank you for sharing your expertise and your perspective on this issue.
Monica Nichols: So thank you for the opportunity to talk about one of my favorite topics. I’m excited that you have devoted this podcast to share more light on STEAM and it’s important not only in grades K-12, but it’s important in the workplace.
Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Awesome. Thank you, Monica. And also thank you to our listeners for joining us for another episode of Exploring STEM. So as a reminder, you can learn more about these topics and more by signing up for American Public University’s bi-monthly newsletter. So until our next podcast, be well and be safe.