Iowa STEM Blog

Friday, September 9, 2020

Q&A with Emily Abbas and Stephanie Laird

Though we often talk about STEM as a group of individual subjects (science, technology, engineering and math), nothing exists in isolation. There are endless connections between STEM and the way we live and learn every day.

For instance, think about the science of baking. That’s chemistry in practice. What about the technology that we use to get through the day? Your cellphone, computer and car are the product of hundreds of years of STEM innovation. Every bridge you cross is a testament to engineering. And you can find math in a work of art or a balanced household budget.

Transdisciplinary education is an approach to learning that understands those connections. It works to make sure learners get the context they need to understand how STEM—and other subjects—are related.

Transdisciplinary education is stronger with the support of business partners and educators who are invested in the STEM skills our Iowa students are learning. Below, hear from two strong advocates for transdisciplinary education

Emily Abbas

Senior Vice President of Consumer Banking and Marketing Officer at Bankers Trust

STEM Council Member

Tell us a little bit about your involvement with the STEM Council. 

I could be a poster child for how you do not have to be an engineer, scientist, or teacher to have a seat at the table and make a difference in STEM. In 2013, I was serving as executive director of public relations at a marketing company that let me lead branding work for the STEM Council.

The following year, I was appointed to the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council and was reappointed in 2017 to serve through 2020. I am honored to be a supporter of this public-private partnership that inspires students, supports teachers and provides businesses future employees who are in high demand. 

What does transdisciplinary education mean to you? 

As a business executive, I have experienced firsthand how dissolving boundaries (or silos) and between teams leads to the best possible strategies and performance outcomes. Imagine if we were introduced to working across disciplines at an even younger age!

To me, transdisciplinary education is fundamental to helping children, and in turn employees, gain the breadth of knowledge, experiences and skills to solve real-world problems. 

How does a transdisciplinary approach to STEM education impact your industry? 

For banking, the obvious answer is workforce preparation through real-world applications of math and technology. I’d like to challenge that limited view. I believe scientists, artists and even those of us in the financial industry must have a guiding vision, see things in new ways and invent or use technologies and tools differently to achieve new things. 

In fact, The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson—one of the top business books on Amazon—echoes many of the principles of transdisciplinary education. Johansson argues that innovation comes from diverse industries and cultures, and happens when disciplines intersect, bringing ideas from one field into another.

What many may not know is that the name of the book was derived from the Medici Dynasty, an Italian banking family that came to power in the 14th century and whose investments led to The Renaissance. In short, while banking may be heavily regulated, it doesn’t prevent those within the industry from being creative or innovative in how they solve problems. In fact, financial investments made in businesses and communities are key to the health and vitality of our economies and quality of life.

What are other ways businesses can support STEM education around the state?

One of the wonderful things about supporting STEM is that it’s a low- or no-cost opportunity to provide great value! How you, your company or employees decide to get involved is really up to you. Here are just a few ways, with a few modifications for COVID-19:

  • Provide teacher externships
  • Mentor students via Zoom
  • Be a speaker at an event or for a classroom
  • Provide a virtual business or industry tour
  • Serve as a judge on a committee or for STEM BEST

And these aren’t even the only ways you can get involved. Click here to learn more about becoming a corporate partner.

Stephanie Laird

Instructional Coach at Mitchellville Elementary School

STEM Council Member

Tell us a little bit about your involvement with the STEM Council.

I was appointed to the STEM Council in December 2019, so I have spent time learning about the work and impact of the Council across our state. As a TLC Instructional Coach and educator at the elementary level, I bring the practitioner’s voice and perspective to the table.

In addition to sitting on the Council, I serve as co-chair of the Equity in STEM working group and am a member of the Teacher Preparation and Professional Development working group. The Equity in STEM working group spent the past four months developing recommended actions for the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council to promote Equity in STEM, particularly in increasing diversity of students in the Council’s current STEM programs.

What does the average day look like in your classroom?

I’m an instructional coach, so my “classroom” is not what one traditionally envisions when thinking of a K-12 school. I work directly with teachers in their classrooms, not one of my own.

I could be in a different grade level on any given day, but the work is always tied to instructional practices and student learning. Depending on the goal area and coaching cycle, I may be observing a lesson, providing feedback, reflecting with teachers, or modeling and co-teaching lessons.   

What does transdisciplinary learning mean to you?

I like to describe “transdisciplinary learning” to teachers as teaching outside the box or silo. Too often, a concept is taught in isolation, meaning it is only taught through the lens of one academic subject. When that same concept is taught and analyzed through multiple subject areas, students are able to develop a holistic and authentic understanding. 

How can other educators incorporate transdisciplinary learning into their classrooms?

It depends. For a general education teacher, covering all subject areas, then incorporating transdisciplinary learning would mean examining the content area standards and identifying how a concept is taught across disciplines.

If a teacher is a discipline-specific teacher—only responsible for one subject—then they will need to collaborate with colleagues who teach the other disciplines. Together, educators will determine how instruction would look across classrooms when teaching the same concept. 

How can businesses support educators who want to focus on work-based learning?

Most importantly, I would say reach out. Businesses know the skills and attributes our students will need when they enter the workforce. Teachers are trained to help students gain the skills they need for the future, but having businesses communicate specific qualities they need in a worker would help teachers better include these needed skills within their instruction.

In addition to communicating with educators, businesses can partner with schools, or specific classrooms. These partnerships can allow businesses to collaborate with educators in planning and implementing work-based learning opportunities for students.

To Top