STEM Symposium gets students into science

An issue of growing importance in our region is: how do we create the workforce for the jobs of tomorrow? Joining What’s Working in Washington today in the studio JD Kathuria, president of WashingtonExec. His business is to connect senior executives into government contracting opportunities, and connect them with each other, but he’s coming in today to talk about something that’s very important, which is: how do we promote STEM education here in town?

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ABERMAN: There are few things as important as educating our children and making for the workforce of tomorrow. For our listeners, what is STEM?

KATHURIA: STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math.

ABERMAN: And these are skills that are perceived as being more and more important for the kind of jobs that your CEOs, and your organization need to fill.

KATHURIA: Right, absolutely. This area has a gap in STEM, producing enough STEM graduates, especially that have the ability to obtain a security clearance.

ABERMAN: You’re one of the leading voices here in connecting the government contract community. How did you decide to focus some of your organization’s attention on making sure that that kids–high school students, grade school students–had these kind of educations?

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KATHURIA: Well, Jonathan, what I saw was, most of the STEM conferences I had been to focused on college students, or people in the workforce, and there were a lot of policy people talking to policy people. So, we saw a gap in bringing parents, kids, nonprofit, business, and government leaders around an annual event in this area.

ABERMAN: And this is what you’re promoting now, what we’re talking about today. You’ve got an event coming up in April.

KATHURIA: Yes. We have an event we call the STEM Symposium, the website is stemsymposium.com. It’s our fifth-year anniversary. It’s on April 14th, which is a Saturday, from 9 AM to 3 PM, and will attract over to 3,500-4,000 people to attend.

ABERMAN: What are you going to do with them in the conference?

KATHURIA: We’ll have keynote speakers, from former astronauts, thought leaders around STEM. We’ll have lots of hands-on activities throughout the school. We’ve partnered with George Mason University, the Children’s Science Center, a local science lab. We’ll have high school students, hand-picked by the principal of Thomas Jefferson High School, and other schools. We’ll have other summer camp opportunities, but the goal is to inspire our kids, who are k-12, to pursue a career in STEM, look for a mentor, understand what STEM means. A lot of people you talk to, young people, seventh or eighth grade, they sometimes have trouble conceptualizing, what does a STEM degree actually mean in the workforce?

ABERMAN: So I’m old enough to remember the Apollo program, and going to the moon, and I remember growing up and thinking being a scientist was really cool. I was terrible at math, so became a liberal artist, and here we are. But it strikes me that today’s generation is surrounded with so many manifestations of technology. They literally spend their lives surrounded by technology, but they don’t seem to make the connection to why technology, or science, is cool.

KATHURIA: They don’t. So, one of the things we do every year, we always bring a former astronaut. And that’s always been a big hit. The topic is ‘From Space to STEM’ we help them understand how your stem degree helps people in the field of astronauts, in that career. We live in such a fast news cycle that it’s hard for young people to understand, the jobs of the future haven’t been created yet, right? Many people talk about that, and so the jobs ten or fifteen years from now that you’ll need, if you want to guarantee a higher income possibility, and a job for life, there’s plenty of jobs in the STEM arena.

ABERMAN: Do you think that what happened recently, with Elon Musk shooting one of his cars into space–which, by the way, I think is one of the coolest things that has ever happened, you start a company to shoot your other company’s car into space–do you think that will engage young people more, perhaps, than a government-related activity?

KATHURIA: It could. I think we live in a celebrity culture. So what we’re trying to do in our event is help make STEM cool, sight people who are doing interesting things around all the areas, something that people can see themselves doing. And so, a high profile story like that helps, but the challenge a lot of schools have is helping the parents also understand. A lot of times, parents will tell me, oh, gee, I wasn’t really good at math, I just want my kids to be happy, and go to college, and have a job, and that’s fine. But there’s so many more opportunities. There’s a lot of studies that show if a kid is not on track for Algebra 1 in eighth grade–and a lot of the decisions were made in the fifth or sixth grade–the odds of them getting a STEM degree are pretty low. That means you have to start earlier, and talk to people in fifth or sixth grade about math.

ABERMAN: What’s fascinating, to me, about this conversation, is when I talk with the big employers in this region when I have my different hats on around town, there is a chronic shortage of skilled workers with STEM backgrounds in this region. There are tens of thousands of jobs unfilled right now in software, for example. So, if I’m a parent, shouldn’t I come to this event, make sure my kid comes to this event, because isn’t this much more important than going to a swim meet?

KATHURIA: I think so. It’s a free event, designed to have something for kindergarten all the way to twelfth grade, and keep it fun and interactive, and meet people you otherwise wouldn’t meet. A lot of information is exchanged at the event in terms of brochures, and different things you can take away after attending an event. Every year, we learn a little bit more about how to make it better, and continue to build on that momentum.

ABERMAN: So far, from a personal standpoint, what’s the coolest moment you’ve had out of one of these events?

KATHURIA: It was kind of fun to introduce Senator Tim Kaine when spoke to us in 2015. He brought his wife, who was then the state Secretary of Education. He spoke for twenty minutes, but the coolest part, Jonathan, was that even with no cameras, no press following him, he went around to every science project and engaged students, and asked them. And it was so cool to see seventh, eighth, ninth grade students interact with a U.S. Senator, talking about their science fair projects.

ABERMAN: Alright, I’m sold. Where do I sign up to go to this?

KATHURIA: We have the website, it’s stemsymposium.com. It’s a free event, but we ask people to register in advance so we can make sure we have enough parking and food for everyone. April 14th, from 9 to 3 in Herndon.

ABERMAN: Well, I want to compliment you for taking some time out from your day job and working on filling the town pipeline, JD, that’s terrific.

KATHURIA: Thank you, Jonathan.

ABERMAN: Folks, that was JD Kathuria, he’s president of WashingtonExec, check out this upcoming STEM conference.