President Obama Got it Wrong! STREAM builds great leaders not STEM.

When I was going to Wichita State as an Electrical Engineering student, I did not understand why anybody would major in any other subjects other than Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM).  Even though I was not sure how to apply some of the Math or Engineering classes that I was taking at WSU in real life.

In the Asian culture, especially in countries like India, Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, etc. most of the children grow up with their parents emphasizing that they should pursue education in either Engineering or Medicine, while in the western world such as Europe or North America there is not as much emphasis on what the students should study by their parents.  It is no wonder that like so many of my eastern friends, I am an engineer and my younger brother is a doctor since it engrained in our brains at an early age.

A study done in the USA by Junior Achievement from 2017 to 2018, found a significant drop from 36 percent to 24 percent in teenaged boys who wanted a STEM career, while interest among teenaged girls remained unchanged at 11 percent year-over-year.

President Obama launched the “Educate to Innovate” initiative in 2009 with an objective to move the American students from middle of the pack in STEM education to the top over the next decade.  He wanted to do this by creating a partnership of Govt., for profit, non-profit and technical societies to come together in achieving this goal … I think the President’s intention was awesome, but he got it wrong.  President Obama launched this great initiative and should not have limited this to STEM, but rather to STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) for the following three reasons.


Reason #1 – My Humbling Experience

When I was going to college as an Engineering Major, we did not have a lot of classes that were not focused on Engineering  There were only 17 credit hours out of a total of 132 credit hours that were Electives, so we saved them for the “6 easy classes” that would allow us to boost our GPA and it actually worked in classes like Music, Minority Studies, Communications, etc.  Most of us would spread these humanities classes over 6 semesters to ease the workload, and not work as hard as we did in engineering classes while still getting a relatively better grade. We might not have as much focus on the learning part as on the getting the grade part, and treated these classes as very important to boost overall GPA.

Probably six years after graduation in 1995, I was part of the inaugural Bombardier Leadership Development program where one manager was picked from each department of Design Engineering, Manufacturing, Procurement, Finance, HR, Marketing, etc. from each of the Bombardier Aerospace divisions located at Wichita, Montreal, Toronto and Belfast. Over the course of the year, we would meet quarterly for a week in one of the four cities and basically spent 16 to 18 hours per day together thus becoming pretty close friends also.

I remember in one of the discussions, where we were discussing the merits of each one of our jobs, I had a heated argument with one of my colleagues from Marketing where I was of the opinion that that the heart and soul of an aircraft company was engineering.   On the other hand, he was of the opinion that the heart and soul of any organization was Sales & Marketing, and everyone should do whatever Sales wanted them to do for the organization to be successful.

At the end, we both agreed that we were wrong and how all business functions play a critical role in the success of any organization.  My key learning from that debate was that leaning in each area expands our horizons, and there are lessons to be learned from classes like History, English, Psychology, Philosophy, etc. when applied in real life along with the STEM knowledge which would make you more successful at work and in life.


Reason #2 – Holistic Leader

I am a firm believer that that if you want to be a great leader, then you have to be well rounded meaning that you have to be able to have a balanced life between work, family, health, spirituality, financial, social responsibility, etc. since each one of them impacts a leaders ability on the others.  As a leader, you must completely understand the following two things:

  1. When your life is not balanced, you will never to be able to become a great leader since significant lack of balance in one area impacts your performance in the other areas
  2. All leaders have two main responsibilities — building a great team and fiscal responsibility. As you are building a team, you must practice what you preach hence you cannot preach balanced life if you are not practicing it yourself.


Just like in leadership, education needs to be balanced.  You can decide your college major based on your interest level in certain areas, but balanced education will allow you to become a holistic leader.  You should pursue your passion in the area of study that you enjoy.  If you have not developed a passion, then explore all areas to create a passion since in the real world if you are passionate about what you do, then work will not seem like work allowing you do devote significantly more time than your peers.  Since you will be putting in significantly more time than your peers, you will become an expert which will allow money to follow whichever is your field of study.  Be open to learning in all areas of STREAM such that you can create bridges in between the six areas to become a holistic leader.


Reason #3 – Reading & Writing are key to success  

One of the key traits of great leaders is the quest for continuous learning and the day that leaders stop learning, they “die”.  Either by working with some great leaders over time or by learning about some leaders that I admire, I have observed that most leaders that fall into the top 5 percentile of all leaders in my opinion have these three common tendencies.

  1. They are humble
  2. They build great teams
  3. They want to leave behind a legacy

In the quest to achieve these 3 tendencies, these leaders read and mentor often which are great habits to have as you are building your teams or wanting to leave behind a legacy.  This cannot be achieved with STEM, but it can definitely be achieved from the R and A of STREAM.  Reading and appreciation for Arts coupled with STEM allows leaders to continuously grow in a rapidly changing environment such that they can be relevant as they build their legacy.

As a member of Society of Information Technology (SIM), I used to volunteer my time at different high schools preaching the importance of STEM in the Dallas – Fort Worth area for about 10 years.  Now as I look back, I wish I was preaching STREAM as I visited these high schools since that would have been a message that would have resonated even better with the students, and we would have had more success with those students that wanted to pursue careers other than STEM since it would not have been a choice of A or B, it would have been a choice of A and B.