Photo of woman's hands touching digital device while standing on a balcony overlooking manufacturing machines

STEM and Business Degrees Strengthen Universities and Communities

When business schools invest in STEM programs, dividends flow back not only to the school but also to students and industry partners in the community.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “business schools are racing to add concentrations in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to their MBA programs.”

It’s fair to say that the Wisconsin School of Business got a head start in this race, as the first in the U.S. to earn official recognition for STEM-intensive MBA programs. We are proud of that leadership status, given our reputation for academic innovation and agility, but we do not rest on our laurels!

Just two years ago, while still leading the MBA program at Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business, I visited many of the big high-tech firms in California to learn about engagement and career opportunities for MBA graduates. I heard loud and clear that many of these firms would prefer STEM MBAs; in fact, one of the senior executives even encouraged me to explore and learn how the Wisconsin School of Business had pioneered STEM in its MBA programs. Little did I expect that, within a few months, I would be the new dean of that school and have a ringside view of our programmatic innovation and design choices.

Though the current COVID-19 pandemic will certainly disrupt many workforce projections, I can’t imagine a future where the United States and the global economy need fewer STEM graduates. The dynamic digital economy demands more people who combine excellent soft skills (design, collaboration, culture, communication, and creativity) with business acumen and contemporary technical expertise (analytics, machine learning, configuration, and coding).

Every facet of the traditional value chains, be it product management, supply chain management, financial, or talent management, is undergoing digital reinvention and reconfiguration. Transformational business models, in the form of omnichannel, platforms, or virtualization, are blending technology with new bases of economics and competitive advantage. This is true for all sectors, not just high-tech industries.

Today, MBA graduates must understand the bigger picture of how a digital economy operates and where innovation is going. It’s no longer sufficient to prepare students who can interact with technology experts. Business grads must be the technology experts and digital value creators. Organizations increasingly need professionals and executives who can be ambidextrous with business and technology. Even the United States military is encouraging more up-and-coming officers to pursue STEM degrees.

Of course, STEM degrees do serve as a powerful intellectual magnet and attract the brightest minds from around the world. In today’s globally interconnected economy, more and more businesses—including those based here in the Midwest—are developing and expanding their global footprint. They need top talent in every field, but they also need workers with cultural competencies, the ability to communicate across boundaries and work effectively in teams.

By diversifying their workforce, businesses will be better positioned to break into new markets, open new supply lines, diversify their products and services, and create new jobs. That’s why business schools should continue to invest in STEM programs, as dividends from those investments will flow back not only to our schools but to all our students, as well as to industry partners in local communities.

Remember the sci-fi film The Matrix? Some of the characters could look at a screen of cascading ones and zeros and visualize the three-dimensional world that it would render. Thankfully, we haven’t reached that dystopian state, but employers need people who can dive deep into big data, extract insights, and visualize opportunities. People with this vision can make better decisions, increase efficiency, boost profits, and improve customer service.

This isn’t science fiction anymore. It’s the digital economy.

In 2016, two of Wisconsin’s MBA specializations earned STEM designation. Since then, 64 students have graduated from the Wisconsin School of Business with STEM-designated MBA degrees, and 23 more are set to graduate in the class of 2020. Placement rates for domestic STEM grads is 100 percent, with major companies like Microsoft, Google, Intuit, and Facebook focusing intently on STEM graduates in their recruiting.

Wisconsin was well positioned for STEM, based on our specialized MBA model where we already offered specialized degrees for branding, finance, supply chain management, and other career pathways. Building on this framework, we have modified two programs that already featured significant STEM content. Schools that currently offer only a generalized MBA program have less flexibility, other than the option of STEM-designated certificates.

Today, MBA students in our Operations and Technology Management (OTM) program benefit from a stronger emphasis on technology, entrepreneurship, and the burgeoning healthcare sector. Likewise, students in the Supply Chain program experience an interdisciplinary curriculum that touches on enterprise resource planning, data analysis, data mining, and project management.

We recently launched two new STEM-designated MS business degrees—one-year programs designed for those with a nonbusiness baccalaureate who want to maximize their eligibility for high-tech jobs.

Developed to help students prepare for any number of careers that demand these high-level analytical skills, our new MS in Business Analytics program enrolled 24 students in its first year. Those young achievers will experience an entirely new curriculum developed collaboratively across a range of specializations. It blends knowledge of analytics with experiential learning through consulting practicums and is poised for rapid growth.

Our second new STEM-designated MS degree focuses on supply chain management—the art and science of choreographing the flow of goods and services in a way that maximizes customer value and shareholder return. Like business analytics, this new curriculum cuts across many academic disciplines, covering topics such as strategic sourcing, marketing, enterprise systems, logistics, and data analysis.

Graduates from this new supply chain program will step into a global economy that is being radically reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Perhaps more than any other business function, supply chain is a critical element of the value stream that must respond quickly when disruptions strike without notice. When customers “vote with their wallets” by ordering (or not ordering) products, industries that rely entirely on a traditional retail model will find themselves standing on a burning platform. Today, consumer non-perishable food supply chains are scrambling to keep up with increased demand, while the automotive supply chain has essentially ground to a halt. The ability to scale up, scale down, or orchestrate radical lateral moves (e.g., automotive suppliers who shifted production to ventilators and related parts) can underpin resilience and growth.

As the Journal said, business schools are racing to expand their STEM portfolios. I believe the race is intensifying and quickening. The terrain is becoming less familiar and the footing less sure. Bold innovators have the opportunity to leapfrog ahead, and complacent leaders risk stumbling at any turn.

In the end, graduates of these programs and the companies that employ them will take the checkered flag.


Vallabh “Samba” Sambamurthy, Albert O. Nicholas Dean, Wisconsin School of Business, University of Wisconsin-MadisonVallabh “Samba” Sambamurthy is the Albert O. Nicholas Dean of the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.