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Fast Company Podcast: How A Public School STEM Competition Is Helping Educate The Next Wave Of Empathetic Innovators


By Ann Woo, Senior Director of Corporate Citizenship, Samsung Electronics America

I recently participated in Fast Company’s “Uncommon Good” podcast, a new series that features conversations with the business leaders who combine purpose with innovative thinking to give back to their local or global community. In this episode, host Chris Denson connected with me virtually to learn about Samsung’s efforts to create positive change through our corporate citizenship programs. I chose to spotlight Samsung Solve for Tomorrow program, our nationwide science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) competition that challenges public school students in grades 6-12 to develop creative, empathetic solutions that address some of the most pressing issues in their local communities and society at large.

Solve for Tomorrow - STEM Education Contest 2019

Owensville High School in Owensville, Missouri was named a 2019 national winner in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest at a ceremony on Tuesday, April 2, 2019 at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City. Teacher Kevin Lay and students Jonah Hoffman, Paige Tayloe and Trey Fisher received the award from Samsung’s Dr. David Steel, EVP and Head of Corporate Affairs and Ann Woo, Senior Director of Corporate Citizenship. The students won for designing a lock to quickly secure a classroom in the event of a school shooting.

As I reflect on my journey leading up to this moment – with Solve for Tomorrow now in its 11th year and my 15 years at Samsung, it seems my life has come full circle. I was often one of few girls – if not the only girl – taking computer science classes when I was younger. I realized then that so much more was needed to create the right STEM learning environment. As I began my career, I felt compelled to seek purpose in the work that I do to move the agenda forward, whether it be discovering a new approach to driving business performance, developing a greater understanding of who the target consumer is, or tapping into a company’s values to find the right vehicle for social change. For example, my experience in Samsung’s Consumer/Market Insights group uniquely benefited my work in Citizenship. Similar to uncovering hidden factors that lead consumers toward brand affinity, for Citizenship initiatives to drive real social impact, one needs to not only understand the actual situation, but one must dig deeper to uncover the mindset of those involved, their motivations, and the stated and unstated barriers that are impeding progress.

As resourced as an organization might be, there are often challenges to starting and sustaining purpose-driven programs like Solve for Tomorrow. Beyond building a strategy authentically aligned to your company’s values and around its core competencies, we at Samsung have learned that exploring unique opportunities relevant to our mission – to create bold innovations that contribute to a better global society – is key. Our intention when creating the program was not to become a classroom, but to work with educators to understand how we as a corporation could change the conversation from underwhelming math and science performance to inspiring a new generation of students to think of STEM in a different way – in relation to their life – by understanding the special role they can play in solving some of the society’s most challenging problems.

Solve for Tomorrow SDC19 panel on Rural Brain Drain

Educators Gina McCarley, left, and Maureen Pollitz, center, issue a call-to-action to software developers during their panel discussion, “Reversing the Rural Brain Drain,” at the 2019 Samsung Developers Conference, with panel moderator Ann Woo, Sr. Director of Corporate Citizenship for Samsung Electronics America.

With Solve for Tomorrow having reached a 10-year milestone last year, I often get asked how the program stays current and culturally relevant. The answer is simple: the students and the teachers. The Solve for Tomorrow students tell us what’s top of mind for them because they are solving real-world issues. For instance, in 2017/18, students were tackling vaping, opioid addiction, lead-contaminated water, and bullying. This year, the applications for the 2020/21 competition are centered squarely on COVID-19, from health care and sanitization to the digital divide and the economy. Moreover, we’ve developed a national network of schools and teachers that have been part of Solve for Tomorrow since the very beginning. We stay connected with them in order to understand first-hand what each are experiencing. That degree of connection generates a vital level of information and insight that we otherwise wouldn’t have. And we use that intel to innovate and adapt the program.

I hope you enjoy listening to how Solve for Tomorrow has pivoted in light of the pandemic; our view on STEM versus STEAM and where STEMpathy fits in; an anecdote on a rural community that has truly benefitted from the program; and why supporting STEM education is an imperative for us all.

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