“Let’s strive to inspire a ‘new normal’ for education where schools become hubs of innovation, incubators for entrepreneurism” with Penny Bauder & Kellie Lauth

By Penny Bauder, Founder of Green Kid Crafts — Thrive Global

As a part of my series featuring accomplished women in STEM and Tech, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kellie Lauth, CEO of mindSpark Learning and District STEM Coordinator for Adams 12 Five Star School District. She directs the mindSpark Learning team in disrupting the educational landscape, empowering teachers with robust professional learning and creating transformational shifts in the classroom. As the District STEM Coordinator, she oversees STEM expansion in the Adams 12 District and state of Colorado. Lauth played an integral role in opening one of the first K-8 STEM schools in the nation in 2009, serving public school children with no entrance requirement. She continues to champion partnerships with businesses, industry and higher education to support and promote STEM education and address workforce readiness.

As a leader in STEM education and professional development, she is co-founder of STEMinspired.org and is a member of CS for ALL. Lauth received a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree in curriculum and instruction with a science education emphasis from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Kellie was a biochemical engineer in the field for two years before becoming an educator. Her first educator role was as a science teacher.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Kellie! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Immediately after graduating, I was a biochemical engineer for two years. I missed the academic environment and went on to teach science. As an educator, I saw a huge gap between what we were teaching and what employers needed their incoming workforce to know. There was a critical need for students to connect with industry to gain authentic, real-world experience through work-based learning.

I worked with my school to develop problem-based learning (PBL) methods to implement in the classroom, which relied strongly on relationships with local industry to solve local challenges. In my career as an educator, I was charged with then taking the PBL model and introducing it to other schools in the district. This was often met with quite a bit of resistance, as educators expected the change to be time consuming with little results. Luckily, most changed their minds once they saw students were more engaged and eager to collaborate with each other and industry partners. Today, we have completely shifted what it means to teach and learn STEM. With over 460 industry partners engaged in our schools, we have more girls in computer science programming than boys and our Hispanic students are out-graduating their white counterparts. We are creating learning models that make the invisible visible and give voices and choices to typically underrepresented populations in STEM.

When the founders of mindSpark Learning asked me to join as CEO, it was a resounding YES! The opportunity to expand my STEM work and create a deep impact in the communities we care about is the right work for me. Three years later, we are delivering — we have created a community in which we can help educators get students to the right place through unique, customized professional development.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

The realization of just how large the gap is between educators and industry partners was quite surprising. Neither group knew how to work with the other. We build programs to address this, directly intersect the two.

When I took on the role as CEO of mindSpark Learning, I quickly saw that we had to build the infrastructure and training for the two worlds to communicate, share language and outcomes, and define meaningful work. It wasn’t enough to say, “work together,” then leave the groups to their own devices. Once we paid attention to the “how” of intersecting industry and education, the results on either side skyrocketed.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I assumed leading and turning around an urban title school with a large staff, tight budget, in a tough neighborhood would qualify me to run a start-up organization. Although many skills and lessons learned transcended across the experiences, my learning curve was enormous during my first year. (Admittedly, I still binge read and listen to podcasts relating to business daily).

In a short amount of time, I had to learn to manage ideas and intellectual property (IP), and invest in professional capital very differently while holding tight to my strengths as a leader. There was no room for self-doubt and I had to manage myself and expectations differently because I was beyond my comfort zone. We actually built an entire disruption cycle based upon this experience and use it in our trainings.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are a nonprofit that looks more like a startup. We constantly punch above our weight. Our values are apparent in every decision we make and every plan we execute. We have figured out how to be customizable and scalable. The direct intersection of educators and industry partners is our strength and our programming and services transcend across organizations.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We have two incredible STEM initiatives taking place now. The first is IBM AI for Teachers; In partnership with IBM, we’re bringing teachers in North America a professional learning experience around AI and its role in K-12 education. We’re hosting two-day in-person institutes in 16 cities across the country over the next year and have a series of online institutes that go live next month. AI will change 100% of jobs in the next 10 years and this initiative helps educators prepare students by thinking about AI and learning how it can be integrated into everyday life.

Our second exciting project is STEMpath, is a 12-month, graduate-level STEM certification course for educators in partnership with mindSpark Learning, Couragion, Metropolitan State University of Denver and Colorado Succeeds. We merge graduate-level coursework with professional learning coursework and work-based learning experience through industry externships. We’re currently enrolling Colorado educators for our second cohort. We hope to expand this program nationally in the coming year. This hands-on program enables educators to become true STEM experts and bring their real-world experiences into the classroom.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I am not satisfied. There needs to be more strategic pathways and opportunities for women to engage in robust STEM careers, as well as more access to leadership positions in STEM. I believe strongly in early exposure to intentional STEM careers and we need more women mentors and more opportunities for young girls to see value in these types of jobs. It starts with education.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

The “broken rung” issue is huge in the tech space. Women just aren’t securing management and executive positions or board leadership the way their male counterparts are. The STEM education gap is part of the reason why. If we can improve access to STEM education by credentialing our educators, we can better prepare the future workforce.

I believe in hiring the best candidate for the position and I also believe in diverse and divergent thinking. Organizations have to have a healthy, collaborative environment and women are a vital part of building that strong innovative culture.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

The notion that there are plenty of opportunities for women in STEM is somewhat misguided. Tech organizations are aware of the gender gap. However, many don’t consider important steps to ensure females can succeed and grow in their roles. There needs to be a stronger focus on human capital and how to upskill, retain and recruit women across all sectors.

For women pursuing STEM careers, remember it is about confidence and mindset as much as it is about qualification.

For companies, diversity and inclusion statements are helpful for ensuring there is movement beyond compliance statements to include action and implementation. This is how policies can translate into meaningful change.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Embrace the challenges and engage your team to solve problems: systems are capable of solving their own problems with the resources they have when we empower them to do so.
  2. Ask questions and seek advice: knowledge and experience are the greatest tools I have, I don’t have all the answers and it’s important to come to terms with that.
  3. Find the weirdest connections you can to transact a win-win (this is my favorite): some of the best partnerships are successful because of contrasting mindsets
  4. The pipeline of talent is as important to invest in as your technology: create IP using your talent pool ensures its scalable and sustainable
  5. Be grateful: nobody likes a leader who forgets where they come from or is unrelatable

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

I have five tips:

  1. Aim to thrive, not just succeed.
  2. Mentor and help other female colleagues and those in the talent pipeline access opportunities. We are stronger together.
  3. Embrace a fail forward mindset early on and encourage your employees to fail fast and pivot. Those that aren’t afraid to fail are the most innovative.
  4. Find the time and space to be creative.
  5. Be courageous in your decisions and mindset.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

  1. Be a conscious leader and check in often to ensure you are not perpetuating further limitations and barriers for others.
  2. Invest in other’s education and upskilling.
  3. Distribute leadership and empower others to lead within your team.
  4. Be honest.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been incredibly lucky to have teachers, mentors and role models throughout my life who not only inspire me, but also keep me going. Many have become my “critical friends” when I need it the most.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Running a national education nonprofit is a gift. I believe the majority of the greatest problems facing humanity today can be addressed through education. Investing in educators and students is the greatest lever we have to change the world and I am so grateful every day for this work. I have the best team on the planet!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I strive to inspire a “new normal” for education where schools become hubs of innovation, incubators for entrepreneurism and problem-solving centers. There would be ecosystems of K-12 education, community, higher education and industry focused on engaging students in relevant and authentic learning. This would not just be reserved for those who can but truly a robust model of STEM education for all.

Can you please give us your favorite ”Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” (Brene Brown)

This reflects not only my values, but my leadership style. I strive to create a strong family atmosphere among my teams. We depend on each other, question each other, engage in discourse and conflict and rally! I believe if you are going to give feedback, it should not be anonymous. It’s important to speak your truth. Don’t think of strength and vulnerability as mutually exclusive. here is something empowering about tackling problems together, going through tough times as a team and succeeding or surviving. The work we do every day is not easy and if I cannot create a culture that embraces failure as much as success and allows people the space and time to create and execute, I am not doing my job as CEO. If you are not at the table, then you just might be on the menu, so jump into the arena!

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

-Virginia (Ginny) Rometty (IBM)

-Marillyn Hewson (Lockheed Martin)


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