The future is now Stevens at the forefront of preparing students for STEM-driven workforce

Andrew Sheldon//February 20, 2017

The future is now Stevens at the forefront of preparing students for STEM-driven workforce

Andrew Sheldon//February 20, 2017

When Nariman Farvardin became the president of Stevens Institute of Technology in 2011, he became a driving force behind a 10-year strategic plan called: “The Future. Ours to Create.”

Its goal was to increase the awareness and impact of the institution.

Five years later, the school released a study charting the progress made on these goals and Farvardin couldn’t be happier.

Applications have increased by more than 100 percent across the board. Specifically, the school of business has seen applications rise 151 percent.

There’s just one small problem: Farvardin thinks some people dismiss the data because Stevens is known primarily as a STEM school whose programs are in demand.

Farvardin will not apologize for the connection. In fact, he feels it’s a key to the school’s success.

“STEM is good; STEM is hot (and) there is a lot of need for STEM,” he said. “We recognize it and we love it. We’ve been doing it for 147 years and we will embrace it for at least another 147 years.

“But, there’s more to the world than STEM, so our story is that we integrate technology into everything that we teach, STEM or not. That makes our product so much more compelling.”

The story of Stevens is just as compelling. “The Hidden Gem on the Hudson,” as some have called it, is one of the best-kept secrets in higher education.

Farvardin recently sat with NJBIZ. Here are just some of the highlights of the conversation:

NJBIZ: What are some ways that the school’s focus on technology has influenced the way it teaches seemingly unrelated fields? What does that mean for the students who attend Stevens?

Nariman Farvardin: When we teach finance, we teach a technology-infused finance; when we teach music, we teach a technology-infused music. And, therefore, the graduates of these programs have a differentiating advantage on their resume when they graduate. They know something that makes them far more marketable and relevant to what the world really needs.

That’s our secret sauce.

We are very proud of our placement record. All universities have to report, but you want your son or daughter to go to college so that they can become a professional and you can justify your investment. So, we keep track of what happens after our graduates leave the university.

There is a standard of reporting that is, ‘What percentage of your graduates either have a job or are in graduate school within six months of graduation?’

For us, the number is a staggering 96 percent, which is amazing.

But, a lot of people — as soon as I tell them this — try to come up with how they can rationalize this. You know how they do it? They go, ‘Well, you’re an engineering school and engineering is hot,’ which is true, ‘and that’s why you do so well.’

So, I did a very interesting study. We looked at the non-engineering graduates and I wanted to know the placement rate for those. I figured maybe 80 or 70 percent, which is pretty good.

Do you know what it is? 100 percent.

That’s what makes my story very compelling. This is unheard of. You would not get 100 percent of English majors, history majors, arts majors, finance majors and marketing majors with 100 percent. But the second you give them that technology advantage, they become incredibly marketable.

NJBIZ: With numbers like that, it seems job placement is something ingrained into the culture of Stevens in a very deep way. What are your thoughts on the roots of that focus?

NF: This university was founded as an engineering school. People don’t typically study engineering because they have these sublime ideas of becoming an engineer so they can do funny, interesting things. Most people do engineering because they want to go to the real world, solve a problem and become a somebody. I don’t know many engineering graduates who went to school to do something completely unrelated to engineering. But, I know a lot of English majors who do that.

They think that, by studying English or philosophy, they become a more well-rounded person and they will figure out later what they want to do with their life. That’s really not the case with engineering.

Because of that, the culture of tying the education to a career is a very long-standing culture in this university. Now that we have broadened our activities outside of engineering, that culture still remains.

NJBIZ: When would you say the school began that broadening?

NF: I would say it started maybe 20 years ago. But, in the past five years since I’ve been here, we have really accelerated. We are empowering that and putting more resources behind that.

NJBIZ: And aside from your arrival and your ideas, what was the cause behind pushing that broadening?

NF: It’s very simple. We are a very strong believer that technology is the key driver of human progress. We are a very strong believer that technology is a key driver of economic development. And I am personally a very strong believer that technology is here to stay for a long time. All of these put together implies only one thing: It’s a big mistake not to embrace it.

I’m also a strong believer that our country, our world needs a lot of English and history majors, and a lot of sociologists and psychologists. But, I think the curriculum would be incomplete without giving some exposure to technology, because technology is such a driver.

Thirty-six years ago, we didn’t carry so much technology in our pocket.

NJBIZ: Tell us about some of your other programs; the leadership and management programs; the business programs, aside from the humanities. How are you building that up to create the next generation of leaders?

NF: We have two programs that give our students experiential learning, and one is the co-op program.

The first year, they’re on campus. Then summer between freshman and sophomore year, plus the fall, they work for a company. That makes it six months. Then, they come back and, the following spring and summer, they’re on campus taking courses. Then, the following fall, they’re back at the company and are back and forth.

The program becomes a five-year program and, at the end of the fifth year, they’ve finished their studies and amassed a tremendous amount of experience.

At Stevens, we are very proud of our experiential learning. We solve real problems. I’m not talking about engineering problems, I’m talking about real problems. And this world has a lot of real problems.

Because of that, when a student graduates from this university, they are more ready to hit the ground running.

For example, we sent out students to Thailand in this program we have called ‘engineers without borders.’ They don’t do much engineer work, but they go to these impoverished villages in the northern part of the country to help the real people. They don’t write a paper about impoverished people. They go there.

NJBIZ: What have programs such as this co-op program done for Stevens’ relationship to the surrounding business community?

NF: First of all, our relationship to the business community is on the grow. Secondly, there are a number of companies that are at the core. They are connected with us; they have been connected with us for a long time and they don’t change.

Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Honeywell, Johnson & Johnson, AT&T, Lucent and Lockheed Martin, these companies are there every year. They’re on campus, they hire students, co-ops, interns, they do research.

Then, we have some companies that come and go because they are smaller, so we have both flavors.

NJBIZ: One type of small company that seems to be growing here in Hoboken is the startup. The city is the home of the NJ Tech Meetup and, just last May, Hoboken hosted the first Propeller Festival. So, what role does entrepreneurship play here at the school, and what is your relationship with those smaller startup companies?

NF: Another thing about Stevens that is a differentiator is our emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship. This is the DNA of the university. The founders of the university were the first family of American engineers, innovators and entrepreneurs.

I’m very happy that 100 percent of our engineering and business students, which is 90 percent of our students, have a required freshman course in entrepreneurial thinking. There’s only one other university in the country that does that: Babson College.

We just started our own technology incubator, what is called Stevens Venture Center. We rented space in the Pierson Building. There are 10 Stevens companies that have already occupied the space we have and nine of the 10 companies are exclusively based on students. They have the idea, they form the company; we just do the handling.

We also have a senior-level course for students who got excited about the entrepreneurship course when they were freshman and we try to help them again in a much more sophisticated and organized way.

NJBIZ: Let’s talk about “brain drain,” the idea that the state is losing many of its high school graduates to colleges in surrounding states. How real of an issue is this here in New Jersey?

NF: This issue of brain drain is a very serious issue in the state of New Jersey, and what bothers me the most is that neither university leaders nor legislators nor ordinary people seem to care enough to do anything about it, because you’ve been hearing about this for a long time and it’s only getting worse.

I talked to the governor. He seemed to be very aware of it, but he didn’t tell me he was going to do anything about it and, I think ultimately, we’re going to pay a very big price.

We export a net of 30,000 high school graduates every year and the great majority of them don’t come back. This is incredible. If they don’t come back, they aren’t going to pay tax to the state of New Jersey, they’re not going to buy a house in the state of New Jersey and, if they’re an entrepreneur and then start a business, they’re not going to create jobs in the state of New Jersey.

This is a huge loss. How can you afford to lose 30,000 of your most brilliant young people who are about ready to contribute to your economic development?

NJBIZ: So, what should be done?

NF: In my opinion, there are two things that should be done. First of all, leaders in the state need to recognize the importance of this and the responsibility they have to the state of New Jersey and raise the level of awareness of their schools in order to attract from the outside. Ultimately, excellence plays a big role.

One reason the state of New Jersey loses a lot of students is that we have a very good K-12 education system by comparison. With all the problems it has, it’s one of the best in the country. So, you invest a lot, you produce students who are quite good and, New Jersey is a relatively wealthy state, so the parents have the money and they look for an excellent institution.

If there aren’t enough of them in the state of New Jersey, they’ll find it somewhere else.

So, we have a responsibility — the university presidents — to raise the level of excellence and awareness of what we do to try and attract more students from the state of New Jersey.

And, quite frankly, I’d like to have a reverse brain drain.

No. 2, in my opinion, the citizens of the state and the legislators need to roll up our sleeves and say, ‘Enough is enough; let’s do something about it,’ and I have some concrete ideas as to what can be done.

NJBIZ: We’d love to hear them.

NF: I think the state needs to make a small investment in order to retain the best students who are interested in pursuing their studies in areas of economic development interest to the state. By investment, I mean providing some level of financial aid or some kind of incentive that tells the student, ‘If you stay in my state, I can cover more of your expenses, reduce your debt or give you some incentives after you graduate.’ Any form of incentive, in my opinion, will work.

But, if you don’t do anything, nothing will change. This trend will continue until we’re a little older and realize there’s nothing we can do about this and the state will go bankrupt.

NJBIZ: We’ve been speaking with the presidents of several universities in the state and what we’ve found is this shared idea that the higher education institutions here seem to form a mosaic, where each one offers its own specialties as opposed to competing directly with one another. Is this accurate? Where do you see Stevens fitting into this mosaic?

NF: In this mosaic that you’re referring to, I really think Stevens stands out in two ways.

We enjoy a fairly respectable reputation and a reputation that is on the rise. And, because of our tech emphasis, we have a well-defined clientele. If you look at the spectrum of universities in New Jersey and you focus on the private institutions, the great majority of them are typical liberal arts schools.

Stevens and NJIT are very different (from that). Stevens is on the private side and NJIT is on the public side. This tech emphasis that these two universities have make us two points of singularity in the state and we work very closely with NJIT in a number of different areas.

We also have a relationship with a number of other universities. Mostly with Rutgers because of their size, so there are more opportunities to interact with them.

We have a very close working relationship with Hackensack University Medical Center. Our biomedical engineering department works very closely with them.

So, there are collaborations of all types, but only collaborations that make us better. I’m a very strong believer that a rising tide lifts all boats and that there are tremendous, unmet opportunities for the state of New Jersey.

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