Featured STEM Interview: Nina Davuluri, 2014 Miss America

photoAs part of the STEM Education Coalition’s ongoing Q&A series, several members of the STEM Education Coalition hosted a STEM Education Roundtable with Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014. Nina is the first Miss America to have graduated in a STEM field, with a degree in Brain, Behavior & Cognitive Science from the University of Michigan.

During the roundtable, the group was able to discuss the need for more women in STEM fields. Nina shared her own personal struggles with beating the Miss America stereotype in her push for STEM. An important talking point was the need for cultural confidence when younger kids, especially girls and minorities, want to know more about topics in STEM but are hesitant because it may not be “cool.” Coalition members in attendance echoed Nina’s sentiments stressing the importance of strong standards in math and science, afterschool programs,  creating outside-the-box curriculum, and finding the right balance between technology, teaching, and legislation in efforts to meet the market’s need for a more STEM qualified workforce.

After the roundtable, we were able to sit down with Nina to discuss more about STEM education:

Q: If you were to talk to science teachers and math teachers, what is the one thing you would tell them about their role in society and their role for kids wanting STEM careers?

A: Their role is so important. I know I was very lucky to have such great teachers that influenced me in both elementary school and in high school. For me, I recognized that my teachers had that passion. They took the time to help when they saw either I or someone in the classroom was struggling with a topic. They made that one-on-one time that is so important. So I would ask they be creative. I remember doing some very fun experiments when I was in school and learning. To be hands-on and physically engaged and taught to feel things and see it happen in front of me is one of the best ways to learn.

Q: What is your biggest challenge as Miss America as you try to communicate the STEM message?

A: I am very proud to promote STEM issues, and I don’t think very many people realize that the Miss America Organization has been pushing STEM for four years now. That being said, I am the first Miss America to have a degree in a STEEM field, so that has helped us really push the STEM platform to another level. I am really proud to be able to do that, and try my best to be a role model to young girls. Being smart is cool. I didn’t walk into a role like this overnight, and I would not be as successful without my education and degree, especially with all the meetings and lobbying that you do in this role.

Q: What will you do after being Miss America?

A: I will be applying for my MBA for after the fall of this year, starting in 2015. I will be focusing on my personal platform as Miss America celebrating diversity and cultural competency. I grew up with a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about my culture, so that is something I would like to focus on in the business world. My hope being I can focus on international relations.

Q: Who are some of your role models?

A: One of my favorite role models that I was able to meet this year was Julie Chu, a former hockey Olympic gold medalist, four times, and I was able to have a panel discussion with her. She is also a fellow STEM degree graduate. She went to Harvard and her story is absolutely inspirational. It was very empowering to hear her story and struggles.

Q: What do you think about the direction that American education is going?

A: I would say that American education is going in the right direction. I know when I was in high school STEM wasn’t an acronym that people were familiar with. Now the high schools that I have visited have such big initiatives: robotics programs, 3D printing, computer science programs, and to see these kids who are sophomores, juniors, and seniors that are so excited to tell me about the robot they are designing for this competition, I certainly see it progressing in the way that it should. I think with more people advocating for [STEM] things will be that much better in years to come.

Q: Can you tell us a little more about the partnership between the Miss America Organization and the Department of Education in STEM?

A: We will be announcing our official partnership on September 14th and I will be meeting with Secretary Duncan tomorrow to discuss STEM initiatives, as well as to focus on education. A lot of people don’t realize that Miss America Organization is the largest scholarship provider for young women across the country. We make available over $45 million each year. Every contestant that competes, win, lose, or draw, walks away with some form of scholarship money to put towards their education.

Q: If you could only do one thing to help this issue, what would you do?

A: I think one of the biggest things I could do is reach out to the young girls one-on-one. Yes that is something I have been able to do, but obviously not as much as I would like to do because of obligations as Miss America, but the ones that I have been able to reach out to and talk to the girls and ask, “why do you think that you’re not good at science,” or, “not good at math?” Figuring out what is the issue behind it and to make aware to them the other options and opportunities they will have if they keep pursuing the STEM related fields.