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STEM Squared Summit Guest Innovator: Dr. Beth Marcus

Posted by Sara Goodman on Mar 18, 2016

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"Embrace messiness, embrace the challenge, fail easily and often, and teach your children that failure is part of learning and it's important." —Dr. Beth Marcus

App developer, entrepreneur and high-tech industry maven Dr. Beth Marcus shares her personal story of falling in love with science as a kid in New York City, and how that love motivated her to found a series of companies harnessing her love of STEM.

In this transcript from the Summit, you'll learn:

  • About how arts and STEM are not that different 
  • Dr. Marcus's higher ed experience, from building bikes at MIT to digging up archaeological findings in the West Indies
  • The products she's pioneered from joysticks to dogwear


 

Dr. Priscilla Nelson: Beth Marcus is currently the CEO and founder of Playrific, Inc., developers of apps kids love for premium kid-facing consumer brands. Dr. Marcus is a respected, high-tech industry professional. Marcus sold her first company, Exos, creator of the Sidewinder Force Feedback Joystick, to Microsoft. She is a serial entrepreneur, founding four other companies, including Zeemote, Inc., where she designed, manufactured, marketed, and licensed wireless controller technology products for mobile devices.

Dr. Marcus has more than 30 technology and medical technology patents to her credit, has been extensively published, is a seasoned public speaker at venues such as the Consumer Electronics Show and is a respected consumer technology consultant. As founder, investor, or advisor, she has helped guide more than 20 startups in a variety of industries, several of which have been acquired by publicly-held companies such as LeapFrog and HG Medical.

Dr. Marcus holds a MS in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, and has served as a faculty member in the mechanical engineering department. She received her PhD in Biomechanics from Imperial College of London, where she was a Marshall Scholar. Welcome.

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Dr. Beth Marcus: Thank you. This is the first time I've ever given this talk. I realized on Sunday that what I was asked about was, "How did I get into doing what I did?" I'd never really given a talk on that from the early education up to the present. I dug around in my attic and I came up with this report that I wrote in 6th grade. I read it and it was really interesting. I'll tell you little anecdotes from it as we go along.

Who am I? I was born in Manhattan. That's where I lived when I was growing up. You heard about my degrees. Little known facts: Right after I got my doctorate, I went and became an assistant professor of orthopedics and physiology at NYU Medical School. I taught orthopedic residents about mechanics and, “why you don't put a bone plate and screw in parallel to the fracture site if you want it to work.” That didn't last very long because I was younger than my students, and I was the only woman on the staff, and I was the only engineer on the staff.

I hightailed it back to Cambridge, Mass., and joined Arthur D. Little when it was 3,000 people strong and developed products on contract for NASA, for the space station, for consumer roller skates before roller blades existed, and amino acid instruments, surgical instruments. Anything weird that involved a human, they sent my way. Since then, I spawned my first company out of Arthur D. Little, and we'll talk about that a little bit. I've been a founder of five total companies and an advisor and investor on more than 25.

You want to hear about, "How did this all start?" Well, I believe curiosity starts early.

This is me in my aunt's backyard. Although I lived in Manhattan in an apartment, we'd go out on the weekends to New Jersey and I would pick up rocks, and my grandmother would try to read me storybooks, and I would try to play with rakes because it was outside, and there were trees and grass and dirt. That's really important.

Early on, I got my first camera, and that's been part of my life the whole way along. Arts in general has been part of my life. This is a Brownie, for those of you who are too young to know. These had film that you had to wind in the dark. Then I got this really new technology, an Instamatic, and the film came in a plastic thing. There's another talk about the history of my photography. I had some shows and stuff like that.

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Anyway, the other thing is going outside. You live in Manhattan — it's all concrete, you're indoors, you're in buses, you're in cars. All the time in the summers and whenever I could, I was going outside. I had this penchant to try and bring home animals. My parents took me away in the summer to these cottages and the dog was trying to come home with me. I went away to camp and I brought home chicks in a box. I get off the buses and my parents would be terrified, "What's in the box?" The Children's Zoo was the recipient of a lot of these animals when they started hopping around our apartment and making a mess. I had chicks for a little while, and my parents were very tolerant. They would actually let me keep them for a little while until they got to be a nuisance. Rabbits, and finally they got sick of it, and they let somebody give me a hamster for my birthday. He was Noah the Escape Artist.

I did like to get messy a lot. This is my father. He was a dentist and, although he didn't encourage the mess, I had to go to his office sometimes, as kids often do sometimes with their parents who work. He let me play with acrylic and make stuff. I couldn't find the pieces. I made my name in letters and I made all sorts of little models. You wouldn't want kids to play with that today, because there's solvents and it smells bad, but let them get messy. That was important to me in discovering things.

This is from that book you saw. I recovered the names of all my teachers and what were my favorite subjects. I had a teacher in 5th grade, who, I liked everything she taught. It was science, and it was math, and it was artistic things that were creative, and I started music very early.

My parents took me to Gettysburg and took me to D.C. I started playing the guitar. I started playing the piano. I was an athlete. I swam competitively from a very young age. I discovered wood shop at camp in the summer. Then, later on, I became my little entrepreneur self. My friend and I made art and we sold it at the pier, Cooper Village Art Fair, out on the street in Manhattan. Peter Max was very popular then, so we would make things that looked like Peter Max and sell them to people on the street.

You might ask, "Where's the pattern?" There really isn't one. The point is that there's a lot of things that kids get exposed to, and you as educators need to let them get exposed to all kinds of things. You'll never know what will become a lifelong passion. For me, it was photography, and I'm a published poet, which I forgot to put on the slide. Writing poetry became really important.

I didn't even know what an engineer was when I was a kid, so it didn't appear on these things of what I wanted to do. In fact, at the end of that report it said, "Well, by the time I'm 22, I'll be having my first child of three," and my daughter was born 10 years ago, by the way. I only have one. I have a dog and he counts as two. In kindergarten, she got up and said she had a brother and said, "But he has fur." At the end of that report I said, "While I might be a scientist or a politician" — I didn't know a lot of things about politicians then — "or do art."

Those things are somewhat true about what I do, and somewhat not true.

I went to Hunter High School, which those of you who don't know the New York system, it's an exam school where kids take an exam to get in. They come in from all the boroughs. What was cool about that school is, the kids didn't live next door. It was a very diverse group and, at the time, we were on two floors of an office building in midtown Manhattan: 466 Lexington Avenue. We played tennis on the tennis team in Grand Central Station. I don't know if the courts are still there. Every morning at 6 a.m., as I started there when I was 12 or 13 ... Hunter High School went from junior high all the way up through to college, and I'd have to go into Grand Central Station by myself with my tennis racket in my little tennis shorts. You wouldn't have your kids doing that today.

My math teacher introduced us to computers and taught us basic programming, and because we had a link with Hunter College, we were able to write programs using a TTY terminal and paper tape. It was too hot to find my original paper tape and go like this. It's in my attic somewhere, if it hasn't degraded completely.

We won a math fair gold medal, me and two other girls, for our program to play tennis. This was back in the early ’70s, so there weren't really video games that you could play at home. What we'd do is, you'd type in the coordinates you wanted to go to and at the end, on the monitor, you'd get to see the pathway that the ball went between you and the computer. That was really hot.

We did experiments in science. Chemistry and physics were taught together, by the same teacher, and our laboratory for physics was the hallway, because none of the rooms were big enough. I remember proving and disproving Newton's theories with those cars in the hallway. That was really fun and important to me. This is my program, actually, if you can see the things, and my calculator which, they still use them today, believe it or not. I missed the slide rules by a few years.

In the summer, my parents often sent me to summer camp. From when I was 10 onwards, I went somewhere most summers to explore things. I went to the Putney Work Camp one year.

That's my dad's movie camera. I was always capturing what I saw.

I learned in the wood shop how to build things. That was my first construction, the inkle loom, which I then sold inkle belts at the art show the next year. I wrote about it in my essay to get into MIT.

I taught swimming at the 92nd Street Y to 3-6 year olds. That was my first experience teaching 3-6 year olds, and I adored it. They were great subjects. I have loads of photographs of them. I sold the photographs to their parents in the lobby.

I got involved in drama, both operating the lights and also being on stage. I said things like, "I come before you to stand behind you to tell you something I know nothing about." I memorized that when I was 15, and I still remember that.

We had an investor at my company who runs Curriculum Associates, and he'll sit at lunch and recite a whole play for you. He's 87. I hope I'm able to do that when I'm his age.

The summer after I finished at Hunter, I left after 11th grade. They had a program there called Inter-college Year because you had finished all of the high school curriculum. I had left and went to MIT then a year early.

In the meanwhile, I won a grant to go to the West Indies and do archaeology. The reason I ended up doing archaeology, which I didn't know what it was, was because I wanted to do marine biology, but my parents looked at the country that it was in and decided that it was unstable and sending kids in the British West Indies seemed better. I went there and I did archaeology. We had t-shirts that said, "Digging the garbage of dead Indians," which is what we did, because it was salvage archaeology. They were building an airport extension, and we had to get those artifacts out quickly. I became the dig photographer, because they realized they didn't have one.

This is one of the photographs of a burial site that we discovered. It happens to be one that I discovered by tripping off the edge of the area and falling and seeing the bone protruding out of the wall of the site.

Then I went to MIT, and MIT was the biggest playpen in the universe for me.

I actually applied because my father forced me to. He had gone to a seminar there, and he thought it was such a cool place, I had to apply. I humored him. I applied to places like Princeton and Cal-Tech and Stanford and places like that. He didn't want me going too far away. Boston was, at that time, a $50 shuttle back and forth on the plane. I applied to humor him, and then it was time to visit, to see if you wanted to go there. It was like, "How quickly can I leave my parents and go to this place?"

Freshmen, there's the politics, and it worked for a little while that I was interested. I was vice president of the junior class, and became president of the senior class because the guy who was president of the junior class didn't do any of the work, and I figured if I had to do all the work, I might as well be president. Somebody, an artist, not me, drew this horrible picture that my daughter goes, "That's not you."

I kept up swimming. I was on varsity swimming. I played tennis on the tennis team, and I rowed crew and rode bareback.

From the first time I was there, I joined what was the burgeoning undergraduate research opportunities program. That is part of the reason that I went there, was because they said kids in the first year could play in laboratories and that sounded really cool to me. I did studies of blood-cell freezing and thawing and did electron microscopy. MIT didn't have one, except for one that was totally booked, so I flew to Chicago to use an electron microscope to do my master’s thesis, because they had friends there, and they went and let me do that.

I did the 2.70, which is now called 2007 design contest, that Woody Flowers created around the time that I was there. I wrote about it for a technology review and TED talk.

This is my vehicle upside down at the top of the hill. The goal was to get to the top of the hill. I did it my junior year and then the next year I brought in the referees because I knew the guy in the sports center and I got the shirts from him and got some of my friends to help with the class.

My freshman year as well, I did something called the Freshman Seminar in aluminum bicycle frame building. Actually, I didn't know what mechanical engineering was, still, as a freshman at MIT. I took the seminar because I liked riding bikes and they gave you a bunch of aluminum tubing and taught you how to use machine tools. I have an imprint that's permanent on my left leg from the chuck key that I forgot and left it in the machine, in the lathe.

I built this bicycle. I went up into my attic on Sunday and found it. It's still there. It's got heli-arc welds and sealed bearings and I learned about all those things because I was building one. The next year, I TA'd the class. What's important about the MIT experience is, they allow kids to see one, do one, teach one, which you hear about in medicine. At MIT, they involve kids in seeing it and doing it, getting dirty, making mistakes, breaking things, and then teaching other kids how to benefit by their experience.

Fast-forward a while, through grad school. I wasn't going to talk about that because that's a long story. I started my first company as a spin-out from Arthur D. Little, and we were working on building robots. I was interested in robotics, so my management said, "Well, go get some contracts." I actually got six people to pay us ahead of time 50% for us to build a controller for these robot hands that got built by a company called Sarcos. Nobody had ways to control them. They had to program for six months to make them move. We made an exoskeleton to control them, and we sold those. We built them in our nifty little ... Ultimately, people wanted to hire me and get that technology, and it spun out into my first company, Exos.

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This was an exoskeleton hooked into this little graphics computer where there was an image of the space station arm. We were doing research on that.

It turned into, when I met Bob Metcalfe at a party for the 5th anniversary of Media 11 at MIT, we both reached for the same chocolate strawberry, or, he says it's a chocolate chip cookie, and we met. I did what you have to do as somebody that's interested in technology and networking: I told him everything about my company, that we had had medical products derived from this technology, but we had a breakthrough when we built this robot arm. It was lightweight, and I thought we could make home-use technology for people to feel the forces inside of computers, in the PCs, back then.

I had been a keynote at a city graph meeting where the other guy had said, "If you can't buy a $250,000 reality engine, you shouldn't be using VR — virtual reality." I got up and said, "We're making $100 joysticks for everybody to use in their home," and nobody believed me. My engineers didn't believe me. This thing probably cost NASA $100,000, but we learned that you don't have to have exact translation of the forces and the stiffness in order for the human mind to perceive it as stiff.

We made this, what we call the bowling ball here. 3D printing didn't exist, so that was [made] out of a big chunk of aluminum. There's a plate on the bottom. I was going into airports to demonstrate this thing to funding sources with this big aluminum thing. That wouldn't happen easily today.

Ultimately, it became the Sidewinder Force Feedback Joystick. Ten million is a really small number, and there were many, many more than that. The patents, we had it at 25-30 patents that I've issued since then, just in this one company. They're fundamental to Force Feedback technology that is used in all kinds of things all over the place.

I did a couple of companies in between, but most recently, before my current company, I started a company called Zeemote, and it's got some really valuable IP. It was very early in mobile devices. We have sensorized phones that we created an IP for. We had a game controller you hold in your hand that linked to what was the step before smart phones, and it was in the market through Sony, Erickson, and Nokia. Then the IP was sold off by the VCs who funded it. It's still in play. You may hear about it.

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Along the way, I started a company called Glow Dog, because I moved to New Hampshire and somebody almost ran me [over] ... I had a dog, then, too. This is my practice child, Luke. We were walking one night, right after I went to a talk I went to about technology and fabrics. We almost got run over. I got the rights to make clothing out of it for people and their pets. I was doing this in my basement and everybody wanted it, so I created a business. The biggest customers of this business were Japanese fashion brands who liked this logo and didn't even know that it was reflective. In the US in 1997, we were selling $30,000 a month of goods over the internet because when people saw these pictures, they'd buy it. They understood it. You could print any color on any fabric.

To make a long story short, it was one of my notable failures that I've learned a huge amount from, because although we were doing really well and growing, 9/11 happened in the year when we grew big enough. We were doing around $1 million in sales the prior year and we were on for higher, at about $1.5 million that year. We had to go overseas to get our product manufactured. We could no longer just get it manufactured in Florida and be competitive in the marketplace. Our first container was coming in from Asia on 9/11, and for those of you who don't remember everything that happened, the ports were closed for four months. In a business that has a 33% margin; you don't have four months of runway where you can't sell anything.I learned two things that were really important about that business. If you have been successful in one business, it doesn't mean you can be successful in any other business. There are unique attributes. Do what you know, or get people who know what you want to do to do it with you.

The other thing is stay away from 33% margin businesses. They don't give you a lot of room.

Quickly about Playrific, and you can see more outside. We're about making digital content come to life for kids. We started out totally ed tech, and now we're a mixture of servicing communities of kids who need content delivered to mobile. For those of you who are technologists, we have a cloud-based model. All of our content gets created and delivered from a server, so it works on the web and on mobile, and delivered to a container app on the mobile device. What we do is, we customize those container apps and we build the content from the assets we get from our partners.

We're the fastest and most cost-effective way to bring apps to kids, and we're the only people that measure everything in a COPPA-compliant way, because it was built that way from the ground up. We can change the content. If you look at the data from a week's worth of kids playing with something and they're not touching something, you go, "Well, that sucks." We've put in something. The other thing is, with registration, you can see what a child is avoiding and talk to them about it. Our educators use it in that way.

What's the job description for an entrepreneur? In my view, there really isn't one.

Entrepreneurship has a lot of similarities with art. It has a lot of similarities with basic science. It has a lot of similarities with teaching, because you guys never know what to expect when you walk in the room. Entrepreneurs, when you go to work in the morning, you have no idea what's going to happen, usually. There's certain things that are moving along, but there are these twists and turns. I have little acronyms that I use when I teach this to entrepreneurs. When it's about people, you got to identify a good opportunity and you have to surround yourself by good people. You have to be open to new ideas and discussing ideas and changing ideas.

You have to be incredibly persistent. The one single thing as an entrepreneur to succeed in a business that you have to be is persistent, but you can't be persistent to one idea or one concept. You can't fall in love with it. You can't marry it. It's not your child. There is life after whatever bench you're in. You have to have excitement because that excitement gets other people attracted to you that allows you to succeed. You job as an entrepreneur is balancing. It's a balancing act. It's a balance between, "Should I try to make that thing for $100, or should I listen to the experts who are telling me it's a big business with big dollars?" They're all gone, by the way, so I was right not to listen to them.

It's also knowledge-based, and it's walking up to anybody you know ... One of the most important skills for entrepreneurs is networking, and because of that roller coaster, you need to be flexible, resourceful. Use your ingenuity, and that of the people around you. Listen to everything. Save that money because there's never enough of it to get to profitability. Networking, whenever you're interesting in selling, talk to everyone that you meet about that project or that issue or that question. You never know when you're going to stand next to, the guy that introduces you to the person who's going to buy your company or be your next investor or be your next customer. Use your friends. Make friends all the time and you will be successful.

Be prepared for the unexpected. The unexpected for me — I have a 10-year-old now, but when she was in kindergarten, I got invited to talk to her class about, "What was it to be an inventor," because they were doing that careers thing in school. I thought, "How am I going to tell kids who are my daughter's age what an inventor is?” I cooked up this crazy idea that I was going to teach kids about what inventing was by letting them invent.

At the time, I was helping a board game company with a project and I knew there were these kits of blank board game stuff with all the pieces you could buy, so I bought four of them and I showed up in the class and divided the class into four groups with five kids in each. Their job was to split up the task between them and do the board, do the box, do the spinners, make the game rules, and we'd make sure we picked the kid who could write to write down the game rules, or we got a teacher helper to come and scribe for them.

We did two two-hour sessions. The first two hours were pretty much creating it. The second two hours, which I got invited to come back for, was cleaning up the details and playing it and playing everybody else's. This is my daughter, at that time, and this is her board game. They actually made the cover to the box, which explained to people why they should open the box. It was a blast. I almost put earplugs in there, though, because I used to go to my daughter's class to pick her up on a Friday and not understand why the teacher looked like she had been shell-shocked. Then I taught this class, and at the end of the two-hour session the first time, I had never been so tired in my life. My ears were ringing from the excitement, but I had [the opportunity to impact children’s lives] and that was incredibly powerful and a blessing.

What are my takeaways for you? My takeaways are: Embrace messiness, embrace the challenge, fail easily and often, and teach your children that failure is part of learning and it's important.

Early on in my daughter's life as a student, she was afraid to fail at anything. It took a while of me telling her, "This didn't work," and her seeing me fail constantly and keep going for her to get it. I believe you guys have the most important job in the universe, because every day, you can inspire young minds. They can invent. They can explore the world through whatever medium floats their boat. Ultimately, they can change the world. Because you have that access every day to hundreds of thousands of kids in your career; you are so important. Thank you for listening.

This is me when I was little. This is me when I created the first technology for Exos. This is me at that keynote speech.

This is how you get me. I'll answer every email, but not necessarily quickly. I always have to have an ask at the end, so I'm always networking and telling people. If anybody's looking for interns of all ages to come and join us for the summer, and summer internships are full-time, talk to us outside. Play with our stuff. If you know people who you work with or buy things for your school from that could be customers of ours, we have some educator groups who are using our technology and we're very interested in what you have to say because we learn from you and make our product better.

Thank you. Questions?

What? I've left you speechless? Come on. Over there?

Audience member: You talk a lot about messiness, and you ended with not being afraid to fail. I wonder if, when you look at the emphasis on order and testing that's set so predominant in our schools now, if that concerns you in any way?

Dr. Marcus: Well, MCATs and what's coming after them do concern me, but kids get interested in things and teachers can encourage that spark. Whatever mess that you have to be measured by, do what you have to do, but deliver that excitement.

What we do in Playrific is, we put educational technology into everything we do. If we're working for Sea World or Jungle Book, we're putting in things that kids can explore and learn from into all of that stuff. They're not getting, "Here, go eat this and learn." They're going to stumble on that volcano game erupting or one of the 3,500 ed tech games we have the rights to use from MrNussbaum.com and to change for our customers. Expose them to things where they can explore and learn.

Yeah, you got to do what you got to do, and it's going to take a long time to change all that, but don't let it dishearten you. In fact, that would be mine.

Audience member 2: You had a very proactive life in your early youth right on through your signing and entrepreneurial days. You enumerated that, and thank you very much for doing it, too. What common threads do you have that you can look back upon that you might share with us that we might impart to our children from what you've learned, and through your proactive career, as teaching is in fact, a proactive rather than reactive endeavor, in these days especially, as we prepare kids for the 22nd and 23rd centuries — the future?

Dr. Marcus: I think my parents led me to believe that I could do anything, and some part of my brain still thinks that. If you can lead your children to believe that they can do anything, if they try hard enough, and if they can't do it themselves, if they get help, then that will set them up for success.

I also think that if a child isn't doing well, throw a lot of stuff against the wall and see what sticks. That's what we do in entrepreneurship. We throw a lot of stuff on the wall, we see what sticks, we see how big the audience is for what sticks, and we do more of it. You can do that with your kids and you can get your kids to do that with their peers.

Audience member 3: I know that you left politics behind, but I'm just wondering if any of the laws have gathered together, because the reality is, is that policymakers at the top influence what we teach in the classroom. As a 5th grade science teacher, I'm very frustrated that the kids aren't really getting science until they get to me; maybe one unit a year. Is there any initiative amongst entrepreneurs to push those policies?

Dr. Marcus: I've tried a couple of times and failed, but my CTO is being successful in working with ACT, the Association for Computer Technologies. They've been going down once a year to meet with the FCC about the COPPA laws, so they're pulling together with the government as to, "How do you keep the kids safe and how do you have a successful business at the same time?"

There are isolated pockets of that, and I would encourage you to network with your educators in the other subjects early and say, "Look, these kids have to learn how to read. Here's a book that they can learn how to read and learn about Edison or learn about what is inside of a balloon."

We have a tool where we can author books with any image and any text, and we're always trying to do that. Bring the real world into the other domains, into math, like the pizza fractions that they have on the Mr. Nussbaum site. You can, if you look around, you can find things that you can bring in earlier and you can be a resource for your other educators so that they get that exposure. They learn what they have to learn, but they get curiosity because they got to see it early.

I brought a friend of mine who's an astronaut. I think it was her 1st grade class, but we went through the whole school. The kids got to hear about what it was like to be in space. Take opportunities like that to take controversy, like, "Is Pluto a planet?" Bring it in. Anyway, that would be my advice.

Last question?

Audience member 4: STEM being Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, I noticed in your biography that you had guitar lessons and piano and theater. Within your current environment and your ability to get along with all these different people, how important were the arts?

Dr. Marcus: They were really important. My mom was an art historian and my dad an accomplished artist. In dentistry, actually, there's a lot of art. I lived in a world where my dad's patients were artists and they were opera singers. A dinner party at my parent's house was Ted Braithwaite, the author of To Sir with Love, and an opera singer. You can see it in your home. It became natural to me, just like when my daughter was 4, I invited 30 women CEOs of companies to come for dinner, and my daughter thought it was normal.

It's really important, because it's a way that kids can be creative from the moment they can pick up a paintbrush or go make sand [castles] on the beach, to express themselves. I think that that's a way to get it in earlier and it has implications to think that kids can make stuff. So long as their parents go, "Ooh," everything's cool until they get some more skills and some more tools later and they can decide if it's a career or a hobby or whatever.

Priscilla Nelson: Beth, you are inspiring us. Beth has a table out here so you'll be able to talk with her one-on-one later if you'd like to.


Images courtsey of the speaker.

KnowAtom is a founding partner in STEM².

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Topics: STEM, STEM Squared Summit

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