We Are All STEM?

By April 11, 2014


For someone leading an organization advocating for increased awareness in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), you might expect that person to be a former astrophysicist, marine biologist or Silicon Valley player.

But Cynthia Kramer is none of those — not even close. For many years, she worked in the high fashion and couture industry as a designer. Even after moving to St. Louis, she continued to design shoes, even designing the first backless tennis shoe.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was a pretty big engineering feat,” Kramer said in an interview with Techli.

Now, Kramer is the founder and executive director of Science and Citizens Organized for Purpose and Exploration (SCOPE), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to engaging the public on education and issues regarding STEM.  SCOPE also provides information on STEM education, internship and career opportunities.

SCOPE is coordinating the first STEM Expo, held in conjunction with the St. Louis Air Show on May 3 and 4 at Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield. Kramer said that there will be around 50 exhibits at the STEM Expo, with different tents for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  Activities will include building a solar cooker, creating a homemade volcano, and even extracting the DNA from strawberries.

A major part of SCOPE is collaborating with the community on STEM issues. The sponsors of this event are a who’s who of the major St. Louis businesses, and schools such as Central Missouri State and University of Missouri-St. Louis will have displays on hand at the Expo.

The STEM Expo comes at a time when educators and public officials have pushed for more STEM instruction in the classroom. In late 2012, the White House launched an initiative that called for one million additional STEM graduates over the next decade.  Earlier this month, the White House touted a $100 million initiative involving two dozen K-12 schools around the country to help students eventually get “in-demand jobs of the future.”

In his State of the State address earlier this year, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced an initiative that called for an initial investment of $22 million to purchase more lab equipment, expand lab space, and encourage more students to graduate in these fields.

Much of the talk about STEM fields can be intimidating for those not super into them. For instance, the news media has talked about robots hollowing the middle class and English majors destined to work as waiters and waitresses for eternity. Kramer thinks that the negativity surrounding the issue is preposterous and isn’t trying to push kids to become the next Doogie Hawser or Bill Gates. Rather, her mission is to show the community how STEM is involved in their daily lives and put a potential STEM career on the map for future generations.

“We want to reach out to people who don’t necessarily view themselves as connected to STEM fields,” Kramer said. “The truth is everyone is connected. You have a smartphone? You are involved with STEM. You Google?  STEM.”

“Ultimately, we want to meet people where they are at rather than preach,” she added.

More about Kramer…

After all, Kramer certainly wasn’t a super Science or Technology-whiz. So how did a fashion designer go on to lead an organization focused on STEM?

At the age of 37, she was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma. Although her initial treatments were successful, the cancer came back a year and half or so later. The traditional treatments had not cured her, but her life was saved by a clinical drug trial.

After her treatment, Kramer asked her doctor, Nancy Bartlett at the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes Jewish Hospital, what she could do to thank her for the treatment. She urged Kramer to be an advocate for more science research and education.

Today, she is the sole full-time employee of the organization with most of the legwork done by volunteers.  SCOPE has received federal grant money in the past, but now relies on sponsorships and donations.

Kramer emphasizes that SCOPE is providing ways to engage the community in the value of STEM.

In fact, events such as the STEM Expo are as much about parents as they are about the children. Kramer noted that parents, especially ones who may not directly work in STEM fields, may not realize the options that are out there for their youngster to pursue if they take interest in these types of activities.

“A lot of parents have their children get involved in sports and sleep-away camp,” Kramer said. “But they may be less familiar with things such as science camp or robotics camp. That should definitely be on their radar screen.”

The STEM Expo is part of the May 3-4 Spirit of St. Louis Air Show & STEM Expo. For more information you can visit www.spirit-airshow.com.