Business School for Scientists — STEM Path to the MBA

The STEM Path to the MBA at the University of Alabama is steering many of the brightest science students into career paths they never before had dreamed of, let alone trained for.

Katie Heywood, project manager for HealthSpring in Birmingham. Photo by Cary Norton

When she entered the University of Alabama almost 10 years ago, Katie Heywood knew she wanted to work in health care. Motivated and inspired by a college-level anatomy and physiology class she had in high school in Cincinnati, Heywood planned to eventually practice medicine.

Although her focus of study would be the sciences, Heywood was attracted to a then-new program at UA — the STEM Path to the MBA. The program allows science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors to weave honors business courses into their undergraduate curriculum before completing an MBA in only one additional year of study.

“I knew, no matter what, I was going to need some kind of business knowledge,” Heywood says. “Most undergraduate prerequisites aren’t in accounting or finance, and basic life skills are learned in classes like that. So, I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to need this.’ ”

During her junior year, Heywood realized she no longer wanted to be a doctor. “I couldn’t see doing it the rest of my life,” she says. “I’m one of those who always asks, ‘OK, what’s next?’ I wanted to continue to grow and challenge myself to do different things.”

Rob Morgan, director of the STEM Path to the MBA program at UA, suggested Heywood consider the possibility of working for a health care company as opposed to practicing medicine. She remained in the STEM/MBA program and now is a project manager for HealthSpring in Birmingham.

- Sponsor -

“If you had asked me as a freshman, I would not have thought I would be working for a health care company as a project manager,” she says. “I thought I was going to be a PA or PT or pharmacist. I looked at everything. But that wasn’t what I enjoyed. When I sat down and really looked at it, I enjoyed learning about the many different aspects of health care. The STEM/MBA program provided an avenue that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

One of Heywood’s classmates in the STEM Path to the MBA program was Samantha Whorton, who now works as an engineer at Alabama Power Co. in Birmingham. At one time, “I was debating on changing majors, when I heard about the STEM Path to the MBA program,” Whorton says.

“I had been interested in business, but I wasn’t sure what segment of business. I didn’t know it was possible to put both technical and business together, but once I learned that it was, there was no looking back for me. The ability to learn more about business skills while working towards my engineering degree was exciting.”

For Los Angeles native Joseph Wolfe, Alabama’s STEM Path to the MBA program “was all about getting school done in one go. I always knew that I wanted an MBA because I wanted to go into engineering management long-term and believed that it would be useful for that career path.

“But I didn’t want to spend an extra two years somewhere down the line either, going back to school full time or taking night/weekend classes. Getting the MBA in just one extra year before entering the workforce was a much more attractive option,” says Wolfe, now a project manager at Adtran in Huntsville.

Heywood, Whorton and Wolfe all agree that communication skills attained through experiential learning were the most important part of the STEM/MBA program. Much of that came from doing innovative problem solving in teams.

Says Heywood: “I think it’s great to do well in the classroom when you’re in college, but in the STEM program and all the MBA classes, they force you to work with people on projects from day one, whether you want to or not. That’s more real world, more applicable to the work force, as opposed to just sitting behind your computer getting straight A’s by yourself.

“You’re having to collaborate with people from different backgrounds. And you’re graded as a team. You’re not graded as me, Katie. You’re graded as Katie and whoever else is on your team.”

Working in teams taught those in the STEM/MBA program communication skills both for presenting before a group and for communicating with other team members. Assignments for those teams range from executing projects for companies to addressing various issues in Alabama — food scarcity, for example.

“As an incoming freshman, I was not the most outgoing person,” Heywood says. “I had ideas but never shared them. I was a follower, not a leader. Well, in the STEM program, you had to lead the team. That taught me public speaking skills that I never would have attained outside the program. Now I speak in front of hospital systems, physicians, you name it, and I don’t bat an eye. It does not bother me one bit. But if you had asked me to do that as a freshman, that would have been my worst nightmare.”

The program also emphasized persuasion skills in dealing with others. “It taught you to realize that sometimes you put your pride aside and admit you’re not always right,” Heywood says. “Especially in the STEM program, you’re with a lot of very, very high-achieving, high-performing students who aren’t used to not being liked, not used to somebody else having an idea that might be better than theirs.

“It takes a bit of humility to be in class with a bunch of people who are so incredibly intelligent, some of the smartest, brightest people I’ve ever met in my entire life, and yet I’m sitting in their classroom with them, learning beside them, and there were times when they would say, ‘You know what, you’re right.’”

The first STEM Path to the MBA class started in 2011, with 46 students, and its various offerings have come to include team studies abroad in China, India, Europe and other locations. Three years ago, UA started a companion program — the CREATE Path to the MBA — and today the two programs have a combined 1,100 students. Both require a 28 ACT score or equivalent and a 3.5 high school GPA.

“The CREATE Path is for students who chose to go into journalism, advertising, dance or music, apparel/textile design, theater or disciplines we consider to be highly creative,” says Morgan, Phifer Fellow and professor of marketing in UA’s Culverhouse College of Commerce. “We mixed those students in with STEM students, and that’s been a real positive for both sides.”

Roughly 75 percent of students in the two programs are from out of state, and about half of those who finish the MBA portion of the program are female. Of those who start the program, roughly 30 percent complete the MBA portion.

Morgan travels the middle of the road when asked about differences between the STEM and CREATE students. “They’re all just so bright,” he says. “I’m not sure there is really much of a difference between them,” he says.

Charlie Ingram and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox