Dr. Jo Handelsman has served as the Associate Director for Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) since 2014, advising the President on science education and expanding scientific and technological capabilities among all segments of the population, including women and minorities. Handelsman, a 2011 recipient of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM), is a renowned microbiologist and academic leader. As her OSTP appointment nears completion, she sat down with National Science Foundation (NSF) Public Affairs Specialist Robert Margetta to reflect on the Administration’s priorities and accomplishments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and mentoring.
Q. How can we use the education system to bring in people traditionally underrepresented in STEM?
A. More and better trained STEM teachers will make a difference—that's why early in his first term, President Obama launched an effort to train an additional 100,000 STEM teachers. More recently, the Administration launched "STEM for All," an initiative that focuses on three issues: the way we teach at all levels, access to advanced courses in middle and high school and biases that determine who is drawn to and successful in STEM. Addressing those challenges could augment all other efforts to improve STEM education.
Q. You talked about how people perceive the idea of what a scientist should be, and how community college and associate’s degree programs could change that. Are you trying to broaden the idea of a STEM worker from an educational standpoint?
A. Absolutely. An associate’s degree, a two-year degree from a community college, can be incredibly powerful in the STEM workforce. Some of the very targeted programs that have been developed at the community college level have created some of the fastest-employed graduates these schools have.
Q. Why is STEM mentoring so important?
A. A lot of the times when we lose very talented people from STEM, it’s because of how they feel, not their intellectual aptitude. Some people feel they don’t fit into STEM because they don't see examples of STEM professionals who look like them in it, or because they don’t know what path to follow. If they didn't grow up in families already involved in STEM, it can be an alien world. Having the right mentor can help students make decisions about what schools to go to, or what classes to take. A mentor can also help them understand what it means to fail in STEM. Failure can be one of the biggest deterrents. If students believe that STEM success is about inherent ability—rather than about building your mind like a muscle—they can see failure in a class and say, “Well, I just don’t have the ability,” rather than coming back and saying, “OK, I need to work harder. What do I need to work on here?” If they have a mentor, that person can help them know that they can improve through work. It's also unknown to most people that discovering, inventing, and designing are activities that fail most of the time. Few STEM professionals get the experiment, hypothesis, algorithm, or design right the first time, but if a novice doesn't know this, they can take failure as a referendum on their abilities.
Q. Is it important to have a broad, diverse STEM mentor base?
A. There are two issues that are tightly linked, but distinct here. There’s research that shows effective mentors can look like anyone. They just need to have the skills of a mentor, which is really about being able to imagine the goals and needs and wants of the person being mentored, and being able to apply experience toward helping someone else achieve.
Role models are another issue, and research indicates that those ideally look like you. Some people who have had good mentors who didn’t look like them are still daunted by the fact that everyone they see in the field looks different from them. That’s where role models can make a difference.
Q. Did you have any mentors in your own scientific career?
A. Yes, throughout my career. The one who I think had the biggest effect was my biology teacher in high school, who understood my strong interest in agriculture and food production, and gave me a New York Times article on breeding corn to improve its nutritional value. I had that article over my desk for 10 years, through graduate school. It had a wonderful effect on me because it showed me how science could affect real people, and how using plant genetics could have stunning results.
It meant a lot that my teacher took the time to cut out the article, bring it to class and give it to me, knowing it would inspire me.
Q. When it comes to building a STEM workforce, why do you need such a leadership-level approach to this, involving the White House, NSF and other agencies?
A. It’s our responsibility. The federal government has the levers and tools to drive change in education. The kinds of changes we need to diversify and enlarge the STEM workforce are not happening quickly enough, so we need leadership to get the message out to educators and parents and induce the necessary changes with incentives.
We’re taking our cues from workforce data. The projections are that the workforce in STEM fields is going to be growing twice as fast as other fields. We’re training people to meet workforce needs. And it's a loss that we have so many students with all the right attributes—the interest, the skills, the background—but their interest winds up getting squashed. We can help fix that.