Investments in children usually begin with education. That’s why Dr. Aaron L. Smith, STEM and workplace readiness expert and best-selling author of Awakening Your STEM School, maintains his stand that education should be improved and has to be taken to the next level. His profound insights on education being the foundation of our existence is indeed worth something to ponder on. Dr. Smith shares how we can start creating and start thinking outside of the norm, and how we can change the world for the better by changing the education system.
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Improving Education with Dr. Aaron Smith
STEMS System Improves Education
Our guest is Dr. Aaron Smith. He’s an expert with STEM and workplace readiness and is known around the world for his work. He assists schools, company leaders and communities to work together to develop and sustain a pipeline of competent and job-ready employees. He has developed a passion for workplace readiness and STEM where he has shared his knowledge as an adjunct professor at Old Dominion University and Christopher Newport University. He and his work had been referenced over 30 times from places like CatCat to TeachThought.com. He is a best-selling author of Awakening Your STEM School and he has another book, Blank Check: Recreating America’s Broken Schools.
Dr. Aaron L. Smith is now an expert consultant on leading community school districts and individual schools to transform their educational systems to initiate growth and sustain the creation of a pipeline of workforce-ready graduates, thanks to his five-point STEMS initiative. His purpose and passion for workplace readiness and stand has been shared on local and state and national levels. He’s received the WHRO Technology Administrator Award and the Crystal Star Award from the National Dropout Prevention Center. He has also been directly responsible for his former school receiving many workplace readiness related honors for becoming a PRIME school recognized by the Society of Manufactured Engineers Education Foundation through awarding over $3 million in grants in just over four years. Welcome to the show, Aaron.
Thanks for having me. How are you?
I’m great. Can you fill us in on your history and how you got and how you created STEMs?
Having been in education for 21 years, I’ve learned a lot of great things. I’ve been around some cool and insightful people, definitely much smarter than me. After I’d written my first book, Awakening, I was sitting with a buddy of mine and we were talking. He goes, “What are you doing now?” I said, “I’m writing another STEM book.” He says, “You’re writing a cookbook.” I was like, “No.” He says, “Why are you writing a cookbook? Anybody can do that. Challenge yourself. Do something innovative. Great things happen with alcohol.” While we finished that conversation, it set to the forefront, “What does it take to build a perfect public school?” That’s the premise of the book, Blank Check. When I was researching the last components of the book, it dawned on me. I said, “I need to go back and check on workplace and find out a little bit more.” I’m trying to research and I’m trying to make the book as realistic as possible but yet enticing. I realized there’s no systematic way for workplace readiness to be implemented. They talk about it as individuals. They talk about the importance, the billions of dollars spent into it. I connected the dots. I used my experiences as an administrator, my conversations with companies and industries and I see the kids transitioning some cells from diplomas to dollars. How it came to life is the five simple steps to make it work.Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Click To Tweet
One of the things that resonated with me is that it started out of epiphany and an expectation that you could change the world. You could change the education system.
We can and it’s more or less we live in a society, unfortunately where everybody focuses on the negativity. Everybody says, “It’s your fault and this is wrong and that’s wrong.” I’m sure you feel the same way. I’m tired of people complaining about stuff. Roll up your sleeves, stop making excuses and do it. Even if there is just my small circle that I can be an influence with, you think about how many people’s lives you can touch along the way. That’s where I am and hopefully, my network will get larger and larger.
That goes back to the thing that I say all the time, people talk a lot and very few people take action and it’s about taking action. Can you explain STEM to us and what it stands for?
STEM is an acronym for five basic steps of workplace readiness. Number one is you have to see the vision. I explained this because when you talk about people from industry, people from the community, the local governments and the schools, their definitions of workplace readiness is different. You have to have some common language and you have to develop a common mission. Once you do that, then you take inventory. You see what’s at each location and what are things you want to bring in that’s going to help catalyze that process of evolution. The third part is you’re engaging the stakeholders. When I say engaging the stakeholders, this is where you’re really trying to put the rubber to the road and you’re trying to put an actual realistic plan tying everybody in one more time.
Then the fourth thing is to make an action plan. This is where you start to derive funding. You start to come up with ideas and transform the theory or the dream into reality. After you develop that blueprint and you fine tune it, the last part is the S. It’s where you start up career technical education and you also put STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics into the schools and the lessons and even in the workplace so that the skill sets are developed and can be maintained throughout an employee’s career.
That makes perfect sense when you think about it. For employers, I could see where they would get behind this because as we all know, there is a shortage of really qualified help on businesses in this country. That starts with our education system that is failing to properly educate students to become employable employees. They’re not filling the bill.
I think they’re doing what they can do and I say that because you’ve got limitations that each school district faces. Number one is you had the funding. You’ve got teachers who are being tasked to do so many more things outside of their scope because we’re trying to think of every which way to save the child. I applaud the idea but teachers need that opportunity to develop relationships, to dive in that meaningful professional development that changes the worksheets to labs, to virtual reality assignments and things like that.
Then you also need to make sure that you create an industry into the classroom and by that, they should be co-teaching with the teachers. That’s really where you’re going to hook the kids because the other half of the battle is not only are you struggling with people getting into the program. I’m talking about the workplace program. You also want to make sure you hook the kids along the way because the secret to a true educator is getting students to develop and thirst for their own knowledge. When you do that, it becomes a whole different transformation.
For many years, there’s been this push in this country that if you don’t have a college degree or an advanced degree now, then somehow you’re looked down upon as less than full and complete. We are running into a shortage of skilled laborers that are capable of making great incomes and all that. We see college students get Master’s degrees that are standing behind flipping burgers at a local burger joint. How did we get there? Do you have any feelings on that?
I do and years ago, there was more information type of things where a four-year degree covered a lot of aspects. Thanks to technology and thanks to different teachings in community colleges and technical schools, they’ve shortened that up to two years. The stigma is, “If you get a two-year degree, you’re not as smart as somebody with a four-year degree.” You’ve hit the nail on the head. There are people with two-year degrees that are making just as much money as somebody with a four-year degree or even higher. The truth is for every one person, let’s say a doctor, you really should have a set of support people who are technicians, nurses, the support teams behind the doctor to make sure that happens. That’s where we see the demand take place. It’s not because there are not enough people applying for jobs, there are not enough qualified people applying for jobs. It goes back to that society. We have to make our children aware. We have to make our families aware that a two-year degree can be as advantageous as a four-year degree.It's not always the most talented people that succeed; it is the most determined people. Click To Tweet
Because of what I do, I meet a lot of people and I know probably ten that have no college degrees that are making high six figure and seven figure incomes. It’s because they learned one skill and took it to the limits and create it. It’s about becoming creative and becoming a doer.
If you look at the technical schools where you’re getting those little specialty degrees, they wrap it in what’s called an industry certification. If you notice companies like Google now are starting to go away with four-year degrees. If you have the expertise and you have the certifications, they’ll hire you because you’re just as qualified as maybe somebody with a degree. I’m glad to see more and more companies are starting to do this because you’re right, you’re going to limit some people because they may have had the money. More importantly, I think you’re beginning to think beyond what a traditional role used to be there for decades.
One of the things that come to mind with me is I have several friends and family members who own either businesses or in upper management with them. The biggest problem they have is getting their employees to show up. The skill set is not there. The passion for being an employee is not there. It’s one that comes to mind is he hired somebody and they automatically start saying to him, “I don’t want to do what I’m hired to do. I’m better than that and I want to be in this position.” That’s not what you were hired for. How does the STEM system address any of the psychological and emotional issues on employment? Does it address that?
It does and this is where I talk about bringing everybody on board. Every school should have career days. I’m not talking about just your one-time where your mom or dad comes in and talks about their job. I’m talking about sustaining it throughout a year where they get to build relationships with the kids. They actually get to go in the fire truck, they get to see a drone in action and develop relationships with these kids so that they feel comfortable and they’re excited when they come. That’s what I was alluding to is that if we can hook the kids into these careers now, that becomes so much easier when they become adults. Then they get to realize that, “With the good comes the bad.” There are three skill sets that I believe that we all need to focus on. Number one is the hard skills, number two is the soft skills, which is exactly that within itself. Then the third thing is education and experiences. You have to make sure that kids are getting all three sets along the way and even into college before they even apply. They need to know what’s the good part of a job and they need to know what the bad part of a job. It’s almost like you have to identify the profile of the job itself and really matching it up with their interest.
Our school district was focused on preparing them for college. Texas has what we call the STAAR Test. Now, teachers teach for the STAAR Test and very little else. They don’t learn any life skills. They don’t learn about jobs. They don’t learn about those things. The thing is preparing you for college, do you find that around the country?
It depends on the location and going back to Blank Check, what I believe in is the graduate should go in three places. One is a college that should be two or four-year depending on their interest. The second thing is the military. To me, that is just as important to keep our defense strong. The third thing is the trade school where they’re going straight to work and that could be like an apprentice school. It’s going to depend on the location and the needs of the industry. Our city, for example, has a shipyard where they make the aircraft carriers for the United States. They have students who go straight into the apprentice school and the half day they’re in the classrooms, the other half day they’re on the ship. They are welding. They are in electrical, sheet metal, HVAC and all that stuff. That itself really should depend on what the location is. I think it’s the school’s jobs to provide options, but it’s the family’s input that is the ultimate device in making sure the kids make the right decisions.
I’ll tell you my own personal little story and you’re going to chuckle. In 1965, I was graduating and I was hell-bent on going into the military because I knew that was my road out of my environment as my childhood was not great. I went down and the recruiters came to the schools and they were trying to recruit all the guys, Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and everybody. The Air Force guy got ahold of me and he told me to come down to the recruiting office and do some testing and everything. I was tested and there was a little unknown industry called Computers Technology and the Air Force offered me training if I would enlist.
I was walking out of the Air Force office and across the room and the hallway was the Marine recruiter. The Marine recruiter knew my brother. He walked out and he said, “Costello, what are you doing over there?” I said, “I just signed up in the Air Force. He said, “Really? I thought you were a tough guy.” He laid the whole Marine Corps thing on me. I turned around. I got out of the Air Force guaranteed computers and went into the Marine Corps and became an Inventory Med. Think about it, many years ago, being in the very end of getting military training in computers. How many of those people, after their enlistments in the service, went to college and got computer degrees, even two-year degrees? Where they went and what they created. It’s all about the choices we make. I don’t have any regrets about it. I’m proud to serve my country. I’m proud to have been a Marine and it will always stick with me and I’m proud of the things that I did in Vietnam. I don’t have any problems with that, but it does reflect on how the little choices we make can make such a big difference in our lives.
My daddy used to tell me to pay attention to the details and the more I hear those words echo in my ears, the more I understand what he says because the little details can unravel into big issues. It’s so important to be as perfect as possible so that what you’re doing has an effect on the person next to you. I totally agree.
I didn’t come up with that epiphany, but I came up with the thought and expectation that hit me when you said, “My daddy taught me to learn about the details.” That is something I did not have. I did not have anyone setting expectations for me. I did not have anyone giving me direction and telling me this is what you ought to be doing. I had none of that and that would have made a huge difference in my life. That what makes differences in how people are educated. How their schooling goes, going on to get advanced degrees as you did and get your doctorate and all of those things. Our parents are such integral parts of our development and how they set the expectations for your performance.We live in a society where everybody focuses on the negativity. Everybody says it's your fault. Click To Tweet
Even though we, children, quite often fight everything that our parents want us to do, they truly do have what’s in our best interest at heart. Even more so, it sets up in our system and our brain on how to deal with expectations, how to deal with success and how to deal with failure. All of those things come into it. Without parents to guide you or that didn’t even have to be parents, it can be supportive people around you. It makes a difference in the way that your life goes. I’ve often thought that about myself. I wonder what I could have been if I had had the proper direction.
In knowing you in a few short months, you echo what I think a lot of successful people have is just through trial and error. What separates you is you have the determination. In the education world, we call that grit. It’s not always the most talented people that succeed; it’s the most determined people that succeed. I agree with you, having somebody there can make a huge difference along the way and we say as educators, “Kids don’t care about what you know until they know that you care.” In the education world, it’s a common understanding because we don’t know the stories behind the kids when they come into our classroom. If we can just unravel that layer a little bit and find out the true being that’s there, you’re going to see a set of eyes looking up at you and a clean slate. That begins that impression. In some ways, I cannot fault parents because some of them are working two and three jobs and they can’t be there, not because they don’t want to be there, but they have to choose.
Then you have some that are deployed and maybe the grandparents are taking over and there are circumstances where you understand why they’re hurting a little bit. Then you have the other circumstances where it’s unfortunate to children, those are the ones we really have to embrace more because to me those are the ones that I think are more resilient. I still remember some of the things that I hear from kids when they tell me what’s going on. I’m like, “How did you get here? What makes you so determined?” They come in with a smile on their face. They come in perky. They’re coming in ready. They’re ready to see their lives change.
When you were talking about grit, are you familiar with Angela Duckworth’s work on grit? To my audience, if you really want to read some great work in research on Grit, Angela Duckworth has incredible work that she’s done and it’s great. It will be helpful to the audience to read it, but grit is what gets people through the hard times.
I think a lot of times people with natural talent try to shift down, thinking they can coast and then the people with the grit, when you put a little fire under them, they’re the ones that are going to turn it into overdrive. Those are the ones that you see giving 120% every day. You look at the pro sports like the NFL, how many first-round people that have gone bust just because they were this, that and the whole nine yards, but they didn’t have the work ethic. I won’t mention Johnny Manziel or anybody like that, but if you look at Tom Brady who was projected to be a backup, they called him a blue chip player. If you look at it, his grit made him into the football player that he is. He wanted to be the best.
I think what makes Tom Brady so great is his ability and his teachability to just practice. His longevity is his caring for his body. I saw his eating regimen, his physical workouts and everything. It’s incredible to be 40 years old and in the shape that he is considering the pounding he’s taken. Can you tell us some more about your book coming out, Blank Check?
What I wanted to do was mirror a chapter book of Andy Weir’s The Martian. I’m sure you’re familiar with that book. It’s such a great read and an awesome movie. The way he started his book, I’m not sure if you know about this, was as a chapter book where people got input on it and the revisions would change it and got developed from there. When I was creating Blank Check, it starts off as a principal who quits his job because he’s so frustrated with the system and he’s finding his way again. His best friend who’s a benefactor allows him to rewrite a school district in the islands, giving him a blank check. He says, “Go in there and do what cannot be done in schools nowadays.” Together by working with the community, working with the schools and creating ownership and pride, they have transformed the island into a thriving culture of opportunity.
How does it go?
The first chapter is a very intense moment where the principal is having an engaging conversation with his executive director. They do not see eye-to-eye because the way he is seeing is not what the director is seeing and he’s a retired military veteran and highly decorated. He’s like, “I can’t do this. If I can’t make the class accessible, make the school successful, why am I going to get frustrated to do it?” He just stopped and quits. During this time, he tried to re-identify himself and his best friend knows how much he loves education.
He finally coaxes him after going to a Caribbean Island. I’ll tell you about the Caribbean Island where he shows them poverty, he shows them gangs, he shows them the poor structures within the neighborhoods. They are craving and desiring for change, but nobody can give them that opportunity until he comes down there and helps the school system become believers. The way he does that is he doesn’t just go and shows them how to do it. He rolls up his sleeves and he works together and develops a plan and this plan actually is broken down into the community. Basically, the expectations for the parents, the expectations for their children, the expectations for the schools and it’s a live document that creates a new level of ownership. That was the reason for specifically selecting the island because this island is a microcosm of what you would see in urban America.
You’re going to have poverty, you’re going to have gangs and you’re going to have murders and all kinds of unfortunate things. If you can isolate some of those extraneous variables, then you can replicate this on a larger scale. The dream is to show people, “What do you do when you eliminate barriers and you create opportunities and the money is not the issue?” Sometimes policies are not the issue, and you really engage in conversations and go back and look at educational holistically. That’s when you find out the secret to life. The secret to a prosperous community is putting your investment in the future, which is your children and it begins in the education.
It’s the foundation of our whole existence. If you go back and look at the man from the beginning, their expectations are what have driven them and that’s what has made us perform. We invented the wheel, the bow and arrow. All these different things that have come out of the creative mind of the man are because they expect and how they expect to do it has always driven us. That is why our expectations are the most important tool that we have to not only change our self but to change our world. It’s been ingrained in us that our expectations don’t matter when really what doesn’t matter are the expectations of others. When other people start expecting of you, we have this tendency to fight it, but what’s most important is what our core expectations are inside of us and how we view them and how we move forward. Part of this show is about encouraging people to listen to their epiphanies because the epiphanies are the precursor to our expectations. Whether you call them epiphanies, thoughts or whatever you want to call, when you shut them out and don’t do anything about them, there’s no progress. When you start living them, start expecting to be able to achieve them, start creating and start thinking outside of the norm, in a box, it does amazing things in your life.
It’s what’s driven me all my life. I’m not afraid to try stuff because I know I’m going to be okay. I know that it’s always going to work out, but what drives me is my eagerness to learn. I love learning new ideas and physics. I’ve done all kinds of things because I just want to go learn them. It doesn’t matter about a degree or anything, I want to know how things work and what makes them happen, but the fundamental is our expectation. That is the one thing that I have learned in my entire life. How we expect and honoring those expectations and those thoughts that we have is so critical to us living a happy life and living a fruitful life and helping others.
You hit the nail on the head. Our true existence is to serve others and to help others along the way. Through that journey, we’re given opportunities for growth. We’re given opportunities to bring others alongside too. One of my key philosophies is we are only bound by our own imagination. We can be our biggest advocate, but we can be our biggest foe at the same time. It depends on how you wake up the morning and also how you decide to tackle an issue. Those epiphanies that you’re talking about, they’re there for a reason and they’re put right at the right moment in time because it really should make you reflect on the next steps that you need to focus on in life.
I want to give you some time to be able to tell the audience what you’ve got coming up and what important things are going on. Let us know how to make this world better through the education system.
First of all, thank you again for having me. It’s always fun talking with you and I hope we’re going to continue to do this for years on end. I think number one is don’t just sit on the sidelines. We need to become active stakeholders in this process. Parents think that they can’t do anything and I remind them that you are as important as the superintendent when it comes to our children’s lives. You make a difference in somebody’s life, whether it’s your child or whether it’s somebody else’s. Don’t think that what you do is minimal and the more people can change their mindsets to say, “I can’t,” to “I can,” or “I will,” that’s going to be the game-changer.
Getting involved can be anything from just helping out the PTA or helping your kids study and helping them develop a whole different appreciation for something like the arts. I would say is when people are at a point where they want to have conversations about taking education to the next level, contact me. What I’m here for is to help others along the way. I want my dream to be everybody else’s dream. I feel this is the epiphany in my life and this is why I’m here sharing my story with you because I want this to become a positive movement. I want this to become inspirational so that everybody can celebrate from this.
How can people get ahold of you and where can they get ahold of you?
There are two ways. One is the good old-fashioned email, which is Aaron@WR.Solutions. My website is WR.Solutions and they can go and see more information about me. I’d love to hear from your audience. I’d be more than happy to help you in any way possible.
Do you have any parting words for us?
Don’t hesitate in life. Utilize that epiphany that’s there and seize the moment but think about what can happen beyond that epiphany and share it with somebody else along the way. It will be a journey that you’ll never forget.
Aaron, thank you for being on the show. It’s always a pleasure and yes, we will always be in contact. To the audience, get ahold of Dr. Smith if you need any assistance in your community. He’s there to help you. He’ll do what he can. Thank you again, Aaron, for being on the show. I enjoyed it. We’re going to have to do it again. To the audience, thank you for joining us. We will always be in touch. I love and care about you all.
- Awakening Your STEM School
- Blank Check: Recreating America’s Broken Schools
- The Martian
About Dr. Aaron Smith
Dr. Aaron L. Smith is an expert with STEM and workplace readiness and is known around the world for his work. He assists schools, company leaders and communities to work together to develop and sustain a pipeline of competent and job-ready employees.
Aaron has developed a passion for workplace readiness and STEM where he has shared his knowledge as an adjunct professor at Old Dominion University and Christopher Newport University. He and his work have been referenced over 30 times from CatCat to Teachthought.com.
A Best-Selling Author of “Awakening Your STEM School,” and a future book coming out in 2019, “Blank Check: Recreating America’s Broken Schools.” Dr. Aaron L. Smith is now an expert consultant on leading communities, school districts, and individual schools to transform their educational systems to initiates, grow & sustain the creation of a pipeline of workforce-ready graduates thanks to his five-point STEMS initiative.
Aaron’s passion for workplace readiness and STEM has been shared on the local, state and national levels. He’s received the WHRO Technology Administrator Award and the Crystal Star Award from the National Dropout Prevention Center.
Aaron has also been directly responsible for his former school receiving many workplace readiness related honors from becoming a PRIME School recognized by the Society of Manufactured Engineers Education Foundation to the awarding of over three-quarters of a million dollars in grants in just over four years.
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