by Trevor Bell - Mar 16, 2015
THE ENGINEERING AND SCIENCE students who sign up for Texas Tech’s new STEM MBA class are in for a shock the first time they take an exam. They’re used to answering quantitative questions, so they’re not fazed by the math portion of an accounting problem, for instance. But they’re stumped by the essay question that asks them to explain what the results mean and how those results might affect a company.
“Their thinking has to change when they’re faced with interpreting numbers instead of just calculating them,” says William R. Pasewark, associate dean of graduate programs and research at Texas Tech’s Rawls College of Business in Lubbock.
That’s the whole point of the STEM-related programs that are being launched by a growing number of business schools: to help professionals with strong technical skills understand not just the nuts and bolts of technology, but also its impact and its potential to solve global problems.
“Our graduates have to think beyond technical solutions and understand how the technology is being used,” says Matthew Lynall, director of experiential learning and management consulting programs at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management in West Lafayette, Indiana. “We can create smart cities that use incredible technology, but if no one wants to live in them, they’re not viable solutions. The tech is important, but it’s not sufficient.”
A controlled build allows administrators to understand the career needs of one group of students at a time and to identify companies that might want to hire them.
STEM-oriented students who graduate from business programs have mastered the hard skills of science and the soft skills of communication, says Ronald Ackerman, director of graduate admissions and student services at Iowa State University’s College of Business in Ames. That means they have the practical ability to solve technical issues and jumpstart innovation, which is being hailed as the source of competitive advantage for both countries and corporations. But they also have the ability to work with teams, negotiate conflicts, measure results, and set long-term strategies. In short, they can combine technical brilliance with management smarts to become superstar managers and innovators. And business schools are gearing up to help them excel in their chosen careers.
THE STEM CLASSROOM
So far, only a handful of schools offer business programs designed expressly for STEM students or professionals. While each program is different, the common overarching goal is to help engineers and technicians think more like businesspeople.
For one thing, they learn to work in teams, which is often a whole new adventure for individuals who are used to working in labs. “Students tell us, ‘We’ve been lone wolves, and now we have to work together in a pack,’” says Lance Nail, dean of Rawls College. Schools also try to make sure the teams are as diverse as possible, mixing students from different disciplines and countries of origin so they learn how to adapt to many different cultural approaches and thinking patterns.
STEM students also get vivid examples of how their new business skills will be valuable in a tech-based environment. For instance, at Texas Tech, adjunct professor Ginger Kerrick holds a managerial position at NASA with the International Space Station. In her classroom, she presents a case study on the business model NASA uses when staffing and seeking procurements for the ISS. Kerrick, who has a physics background, “will show how she married her STEM acumen with her business acumen to progress to the role she’s in,” says Nail.
Even standard business courses are being rethought to add a STEM angle. “Traditional business law courses might not be as appropriate in a STEM MBA program, because there’s a lot more emphasis on intellectual property,” says Texas Tech’s Pasewark. “We’re retooling our course to cover patents and copyrights.”
Students in STEM-based business courses also frequently have opportunities to apply their new knowledge in the workplace. For instance, at Iowa State, all industrial engineering students must complete a senior project where they work as consultants with a manufacturing company; those in the STEM MBA program can use that same course to fulfill their MBA requirement of a service learning project in which they consult with area nonprofits. This class allows students to practice team-building skills, apply newly learned business concepts, and benefit the community, all at the same time.
Students conduct similar industry projects at Purdue. For a recent class, says Lynall, students considered how clients should incorporate 3-D printing into their businesses. They not only looked at engineering specs and mechanical characteristics, but also debated how 3-D printing could potentially reshape the firm.
“With new technology, the disruption often isn’t the technology itself,” says Lynall. “It’s the implication it has for the organization’s business model and the way the company creates and captures value. If students leave here and don’t understand that, we haven’t done a good job.”
THE STEM EMPLOYEE
Once STEM students master business skills, administrators expect to see them find jobs at a wide range of workplaces. For instance, a Texas Tech student with math and economics degrees recently took a position as a business analytics consultant at E&Y. The school expects to see students placed at energy companies, biotech firms, and pharmaceutical labs.
Lynall predicts that Purdue students will end up in companies that use and will be affected by technological innovations, whether on the operations, supply chain, or distribution side. Some will go into product development and technology commercialization; others will take jobs where they deal with the implications of technology at their firms. But, he adds, the program is new enough that he’s not sure yet what will happen. “Once we put students in front of recruiters, we’ll have a clearer idea of what kinds of jobs these students will be moving into,” he says.
At Iowa State, where the STEM-related business program is a five-year BS/ MBA, administrators first worried about the marketability of their graduates, who tend to be younger than the typical MBA. However, Ackerman notes, most are employed at graduation and all of them have jobs within three months.
Those Iowa State graduates tend to fall into three categories, says Mark Peterson, director of graduate career services. The first group consists of graduates who take traditional first jobs in technical fields—however, they often start at higher salaries because of their expanded skill set. The second group is made up of graduates who go into their first jobs at a somewhat higher level, even though they’re younger than other applicants and have less experience.
The third group consists of individuals who took STEM courses because they’re good at math or science, but they choose careers that have little to do with their undergraduate majors—for instance, they might be engineers who go into investment firms. “Organizations like the way these engineers apply logic to problems and solutions,” explains Peterson.
THE STEM LAUNCHPAD
As science and technology become increasingly important to the innovation efforts of entire nations, more business schools are likely to add programs that target individuals in tech and science fields. Administrators of current STEM programs offer key pieces of advice:
Start small and build slowly. Make sure your faculty is ready to take on the challenge, says Pasewark, and make sure you can design the right curriculum for your targeted audience.
Such a controlled build allows the program to expand in a way that’s manageable. It also allows administrators to understand the career needs of one group of students at a time and to identify companies that might want to hire them. “Gradually building the program allowed us not only to understand the upgrade in business and managerial skills.
Similarly, at Texas Tech, Mary Weatherly, director of graduate and professional programs, has been expanding her recruiting efforts across the state and across the nation. On campus, she visits STEM classrooms; off-campus, she attends career tours, visits other colleges with strong STEM programs, and promotes the MBA on social media. Students and their parents are excited about the possibilities, she says. “I’ve met with more people on this program than I have for any other program we offer,” says Weatherly.
Iowa State’s STEM MBA is an extension of the undergrad curriculum, so it doesn’t look to other schools to fill the pipeline. Even so, it recently began engaging students far earlier than their junior years, when they apply for the colleges on campus follow a 16-week format, making it tricky for students to sign up for certain classes. Krannert is responding by cross-appointing faculty members to develop stronger connections between STEM and management professors. Krannert also is co-developing course offerings with other schools “to make classes more accessible to oneyear STEM MBA students, either in the way the courses are structured or where they’re located,” says Lynnall.
He adds, “We hope that when we develop more collaborative programs, the boundaries between academic units will disappear. We want this program to truly be seen as a Purdue program, not a School of Management program at Purdue.”
Decide what qualifies as STEM at your school. “There are a lot of definitions of STEM, and we had to narrow it down,” says Pasewark. “You’ll have discussions like, ‘Is exercise science really STEM?’ At Texas Tech, our preference has been to restrict the program to students from engineering and the hard sciences.”
Build the program around your university’s strengths. At some schools, that might be biotech or big pharma. At Texas Tech, that includes energy—so it’s no surprise that the current program includes four students from the wind science department, a specialty of the school.
Be patient and flexible. It might take time for program administrators to figure out what courses students will be interested in and which employers will want to hire graduates. “We expect it will take a while before our program has its own identity separate from the two-year MBA,” Lynall says. “We know that once we enroll students, we need to respond to their needs and help them pursue the kinds of jobs they want.”
THE STEM ADVANTAGE
Business schools that take the time and invest the energy to launch STEM-related programs are likely to reap big rewards. For one thing, says Iowa State’s Peterson, as they look for companies to offer internship programs and hire their students, they’ll develop relationships with a whole new set of businesses. In turn, when those businesses need graduates from other disciplines, they’ll check first with the school they trust.
Stronger alliances between business and STEM disciplines represent a win-win for everyone.
Lynall agrees. “If the only relationship we have with these companies is that they come in once a year to recruit our students, that’s not sufficient,” says Lynall. “If we engage them in other ways, we develop a partnership. In the end, they’re the customers. If we don’t understand what they need and how their businesses are changing, if we don’t have very rich relationships with industry, we won’t keep evolving our program. We’ll just be guessing, doing something, and hoping it works.”
Most important, when business schools launch STEM-related programs, they equip their graduates with the skills they need for a lifetime of employment. “A sophomore engineering student recently told me about his internship at John Deere,” relates Ackerman of Iowa State. “He said, ‘Many parts of the job were business-related, from managing projects to working on teams. I didn’t need technical skills so much as an understanding of business.’”
Stronger alliances between business and STEM disciplines represent a win-win for everyone involved. Students will follow more interesting career paths, corporations will do a better job of harnessing the power of new ideas, and society more quickly will reap the benefits of new products. Business schools that incorporate STEM into their studies can recruit a new type of student, build stronger relationships with industry—and participate in some of the most exciting new developments of the future.