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STEM at Cal State East Bay: A conversation with Dean Terri Swartz of CBE

  • May 3, 2010

As the university-wide conversation about Cal State East Bay’s future expands, I plan to continue sharing with you what I hear and learn, including new perspectives about our initiative to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

Transforming Cal State East Bay into the region’s high-access STEM university of choice will be a joint effort, involving all of our programs and each of our colleges. That’s why the guidance and collaboration of university academic leaders — particularly our deans — has been invaluable to me during the development of this initiative.

This month, I sat down with Dean Terri Swartz of the College of Business and Economics to discuss our shared objectives for STEM education at CSUEB and how STEM-related skills are not only relevant but also crucial to the business world.

As Dean Swartz noted, for CBE, science, technology and engineering are more than academic disciplines — they represent leading industries, companies and employers in our region. With our STEM education initiative, CSUEB has a unique opportunity to partner with these industries in providing our students with the knowledge and skills required for career success. And in doing so, we ensure that all of our graduates are highly valued in this workplace as employees and managers, whether they are scientists and engineers, or marketers or accountants.

Dean Swartz was quick to offer an example of the intersection of STEM and business experience, telling about the work CBE students have done with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to develop a business plan to commercialize a technology for disease testing, looking at new applications and markets and developing a business plan. “We took technology that was developed for a narrow purpose and considered how it could have a much broader impact in the world,” she said. “It illustrates how we are all players in STEM.”

Relevance and Readiness

Dean Swartz and I agreed that the infusion of STEM education into the CBE curricula ensures the relevance of our programs, the degrees we confer, and the skills our students take into the workforce, while helping meet the needs of regional employers. But as Dean Swartz pointed out, providing graduates who are prepared to work, collaborate, and solve problems in any industry requires much more than specialized, technical skill sets. “It’s about orientation and perspective — high-level critical thinking.”

Strong, integrated science and math skills allow students to understand more than equations. These are the skills they use to manage, analyze, and make strategic choices and decisions. They must be cultivated starting well before the college level, which is why our STEM initiative also focuses on improving K-12 education in these subjects.

“But math is not just about algebra or calculus,” Dean Swartz observed. “It’s about quantitative reasoning — the same reasoning that’s at the heart of our curriculum, in programs such as finance, accounting and supply chain management. You simply can’t succeed in business without it.”

We discussed how our students are not only well prepared but are also fortunate to have so many exceptional opportunities to engage in regional STEM-related business and commerce. CSUEB’s proximity to all four national labs in Northern California, to the Oakland port, not to mention San Francisco and Silicon Valley, is a distinct advantage. Dean Swartz also highlighted partnerships the university and the college have built with companies and organizations in high tech, biotech, clean energy and health care — all emerging and important business sectors for California and the East Bay.

In reflecting on the role CBE has in the University’s STEM education initiative, Dean Swartz and I found ourselves most often describing and defining it in terms of entrepreneurship, innovation and sustainability. After all, businesses are constantly reinventing over time to respond to evolving technology, as well as changing economic, social and market conditions and needs. They innovate to develop new products, solve problems, compete successfully, and grow. Simply put, business is not just about making money; business is about staying in business.

Putting a point on our shared view of what’s required for success in business, Dean Swartz highlighted that the college has recently redesigned its flagship MBA curriculum to focus on globalization, innovation and sustainability. “We looked at the needs of regional business and industry and recognized that without these three thrusts, neither they nor our graduates could be successful,” she said, “Other business schools are just now catching up.”

During the next few years, she explained, this new approach will “filter down” to our undergraduate business programs — already one of the most popular majors at CSUEB. At the same time, the University will be enriching its undergraduate general education program with more STEM content. This powerful combination will help us graduate business professionals who are fully qualified to compete in the global knowledge economy.

Business view of STEM

For CBE, STEM education is less about teaching specific technical disciplines — even though strong analytical and qualitative skills are clearly necessary for business graduates to be successful — than it is about infusing the curriculum with a broad STEM view. The question, said Dean Swartz, was “How does STEM education become a part of who we are, at CBE?”

In our discussion, Dean Swartz and I reframed the STEM acronym to stand for “sustainability, technology, economics and management” We recognized that it’s natural for the college to see this initiative through a “business lens” as it considers the many aspects of STEM education and how they apply to CBE’s unique mission and role in meeting regional workforce and business leadership needs.

We explored the idea that “sustainability,” for example, is frequently misunderstood, or oversimplified. In fact, it has three interdependent elements: social, economic and environmental. They are inextricably intertwined into what governments, organizations and businesses around the world now think of as “sustainable development.”

This recognizes that maintaining long-lasting enterprise of any sort requires more than vision and plans for strategies, tactics, metrics and results. It requires a built–in, continuous-improvement feedback loop. “These are business principles that apply to all organizations, whether they are NGOs, governments, or corporations. By engaging in good business practices, an entity can be sustainable,” said Dean Swartz.

Long term vs. short term

As I stated before, our focus on STEM represents a long-term vision and commitment for the university and our region. Dean Swartz and I discussed how this is the same view businesses must take — sustainable and long term. Regardless of the enterprise or industry, said Dean Swartz, “the goal should be to continue to produce results and benefits far beyond today and tomorrow.”

Our business school, through its economics expertise, can also help us understand and work with the policies that influence regional economic and workforce development, competitiveness, and opportunity. “We do what we’re rewarded for. It’s human nature. So policy is a powerful tool in determining our future as a region,” Dean Swartz said.

Dean Swartz also emphasized that all undergraduate and graduate business students at CSUEB have a strong grounding in ethics, which is infused throughout the curriculum, rather than isolated in a single class. “As a result, we raise our students’ consciousness and level of understanding about what’s required to make sustainable, fair and appropriate choices,” she said. “Our students leave here understanding and appreciating that they will be tasked with making tough calls — and fully prepared to do so.”

STEM and core values at CBE

A business perspective brings another important dimension to the university’s STEM education initiative, offering new contexts for students and faculty alike. From analytic tools and finance skills to people management, to the role of economics in creating policy, “all parts of CBE are engaged in the University’s STEM initiative,” said Dean Swartz.

In my estimation, critical thinking and creativity — essential elements of a STEM mindset— are just as central to the CBE curriculum as to every other college. Dean Swartz reinforced this, noting that just as engineering or scientific research requires creativity to solve complex problems, break new ground and find long lasting new solutions and answers, so do successful finance, marketing and accounting operations. “By focusing on what’s required for our students to succeed in a fast-changing, increasingly complex, globalized and technical marketplace,” she explained, “we are redefining business education at CBE as very much STEM based.”

In wrapping up our conversation, Dean Swartz and I concluded that of the core values integral to the University’s STEM education initiative, our commitment to broad access is paramount. After all, CSUEB’s STEM initiative is focused as much on increasing economic and social inclusion as it is on workforce development.

“CSUEB is about hope, opportunity and change.” Dean Swartz said. “And that’s exactly what CBE delivers. Our students’ lives and futures are changed because they came here. That’s why a STEM education — as we define it at CBE — is central to our offering and to the educational experience we offer. Anything less wouldn’t be true to our mission and values,” she concluded.

I can’t think of a clearer expression of the importance of STEM education at CSUEB. My thanks to Dean Swartz for this compelling, fresh take on Cal State East Bay’s future and for the support of the College of Business and Economics.

Next month, the conversation continues with Dean Michael Leung of the College of Science.

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