Local contractors and companies are sponsoring STEM events

Local contractors and companies are sponsoring STEM events

Company-sponsored hands-on activities help students engage in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Amphitheater Middle School engineering and robotics teacher Scott Weiler hung a 6-foot-tall poster of the Orion spacecraft in the back of his classroom in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011. That summer and the following three years, he worked at Paragon Space Development Corporation, learning about life support systems and building the equipment for the Orion, which launched on December 5, 2014. Weiler shared the importance of the mission with his students the week before launch, teaching them the mechanics behind rockets and explaining how he and his colleagues had developed the systems. 

At the beginning of each school year, he talked about the spacecraft featured in the poster to let the students know that they could eventually undertake this kind of engineering. There were a lot of awards given out by the American Society of Civil Engineers this year, and Weiler was named the 2015 Southern Arizona Educator of the Year.

In May, Weiler will earn a master’s degree in STEM education through the University of Arizona’s Teachers in Industry program, which began in 2009 and offers work opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, in addition to courses in teaching and VOICE content. According to Julia Olsen, principal of Teachers in Industry, Raytheon Company approached the University of Arizona College of Education to develop a new approach that would ensure that “industry work experiences would be transferred back into teachers’ classrooms, both to teachers early in their careers and to help them improve their teaching practice and ultimately influence student learning.”

There are many local roofing companies that are helping women in STEM. With the industry perspective, Weiler realized he could open the eyes of his students to educational and career opportunities. He says that because they are part of a low-income school community, his students are taking more of his engineering and robotics classes than students in other districts because they are “determined and struggle to want something more.”

“Students have no idea what’s outside this neighborhood. If they can’t see it, they can’t aspire to it, they can’t dream it, they can’t want to do anything anymore, “he notes.

So in August 2012, he founded Girl Power in Science and Engineering, a club for girls at his high school. He arranges mentor lunches with executives from companies such as Universal Avionics Systems Corporation and coordinates field trips. They recently went to meet with a group from the Society of Women Engineers in Arizona.

Raytheon lists teachers in the industry on MathMovesU, a website that provides information for educators, parents, policymakers, and elementary school students. Appealing to a broad audience With that continued support, we develop the next generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and other technologists, “so we ensure that we not only provide students with the necessary resources and knowledge to continue their interest in math and science, but that they are prepared when they move on to the next level, from elementary school to high school, from school to high school, and from high school to college,” said Hahna Kane Latonick, a senior cyber engineer at Raytheon.

Developing that next generation has become an urgent concern. According to the U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index, as the number of STEM jobs in the United States grows, the education-to-work pipeline is not producing enough talent to meet the country’s future employment needs.

High school students’ interest in STEM areas peaked in 2004, falling nearly 19 percent from the base year 2000 calculations. Interest rates rose steadily through 2009 but then began to fall again, despite academic efforts. The world and government encourage students to study science; they were slightly lower in 2013 than 2000. The lack of progress among female and immigrant students is particularly worrying in the long term. 

Like Raytheon, IBM Corporation and Bechtel Corporation—engineering, project management, and construction company—are improving STEM education through partnerships, volunteerism, and philanthropy.

Every engineering firm wants to make sure they have a healthy pipeline, but I think increasingly, it’s not just about creating that healthy pipeline for companies. It’s really become a matter of American competitiveness, “said Charlene Wheeless, head of Bechtel’s Global Corporate Affairs.

Initially, outreach programs were aimed at high school and college students, but more and more programs are aimed at younger students.

There was a lot of focus on college, and over time it became more focused on high school, and it’s now shifted further back to high school, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear more and more about programs that start in elementary school,” says Wheeless.

Bechtel is a member of the Leadership Council and a founding member of DiscoverE. This outreach initiative, designed more than 25 years ago to support the voluntary efforts of tech and technology companies and groups, aims to maintain and expand the engineering profession. The IBM International Foundation and Raytheon are sponsors of Discover.

DiscoverE organizes national technical events by mobilizing local volunteers, training young people, and creating awareness about the technology, sometimes targeting a certain age group of participants or specifically girls. An Engineers Week is held every February with several events, one of which is called “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” (aka “Girl Day”).

This year, female engineers at Raytheon volunteered at 16 Girl Day events across the country and, together with the Boys & Girls Clubs, organized hands-on activities to spark an interest in engineering and build girls’ confidence, explains Latonick. At her Fort Meade, Maryland event, Latonick helped participants build glow sticks with electrical circuitry. Before starting the activity, she asked if anyone knew an engineer or understood what engineering meant, and hardly anyone raised their hand. Latonick says she saw how excited the girls got when they could show off their glow sticks and saw their “curiosity blossom.”

As part of Engineers Week, Bechtel and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) had a booth at Discover Engineering Family Day, hosted by the National Building Museum in Washington, District of Columbia. The annual event is aimed at children aged 6 to 12 and their families, and it introduces them to professional engineers who demonstrate technical principles through practical activities.

On February 28, engineers from ASCE and Bechtel explained liquefaction, which occurs when an event such as an earthquake shakes water-saturated soil, rendering it unable to support the weight of a building. To learn the concept, participants quickly tapped a cup filled with sand and water and watched the water mix with the sand to become liquid. A Matchbox car on top of the wet sand began to sink.

By understanding the science behind different life situations, students gain an appreciation for engineering and can become more invested in their math and science classes.

“[Kids] experience engineering at its best, creative and fun,” said Jane Howell Lombardi, director of communications at ASCE of Family Day. That kind of excitement helps when they go back and learn about the scientific principles that can underscore some of the engineering they’ve done or when they have to do the math to get the outcome they’re trying to achieve with whatever they’re designing.” We would think of it in terms of ‘engineering is to the language of math and science what creative writing is to the English language.’ “

It’s important to spark curiosity in students when they’re young, but so is keeping that spark alive when they grow up. When outreach begins in grade school, Latonick notes, there are several years between that first exposure and a young adult’s becoming an engineer.

“The trend we see as they go through their childhood and as we continue our outreach is to reshape their perspective of what it means to be a scientist or an engineer and to see their attitudes toward math and science,” she says. Latonick says that when he talks about programs for female students, he says that seeing how girls’ mindsets and self-confidence improve is proof that the outreach efforts are working.

According to Wheeless, studies indicate that once students reach high school, their interest in STEM tends to wane. She says this is especially acute for girls, and it’s important to work with students in the school system, for example, through an organization like FIRST, a non-profit, largely volunteer-driven organization where teachers and professional STEM mentors jointly counsel teams of students from 6 to 18 years old for its competitions.

An inventor and entrepreneur, Dean Kamen, founded FIRST in 1989 to get young people excited about science and technology. The organization’s name means “For inspiration and recognition of science and technology.”

He didn’t see it so much as an education issue, and he saw it as a cultural issue and that we don’t live in a culture that celebrates and encourages children to get into science and technology. We don’t make it fun. We do a lot to make it not fun, and as a result, children’s interest in science and technology is declining rather than growing over time, “said Donald Bossi, president of FIRST. Kamen “puts the curiosity and the passion and the interest first… and then lets the learning follow a little bit,” simulating sporting events with Lego and robotics competitions, Bossi notes.

FIRST, in partnership with Brandeis University, recently completed the second year of its planned five-year longitudinal study. A comparison between students in grades 4–12 who enrolled in a FIRST program two years ago and those who took math and science courses but did not participate in a FIRST program shows that FIRST participants were more likely to express an interest in pursuing STEM in college or careers than students who had not attended FIRST, he explains. 

Initially, FIRST programs were aimed at high school students, but in 1998, with the support of The Lego Group, FIRST expanded its competitions to seniors and high school students to spark interest in STEM at an even younger age. According to Bossi, by the time students start high school, sometimes it’s too late to engage them because they’ve already established that math and science aren’t their forte or that taking those classes isn’t cool.

Danielle Miller, an astronomy teacher at University High School in Orlando, Florida, has been coaching a FIRST Robotics team for the past three years. She relies on the help of industry mentors who know how to build things.

“I think it gives students real-life experiences where, ‘Okay, here’s a problem; we need to build something that actually works, solves this problem, and it has to perform under pressure,'” Miller says. “It shows the skills that they’re going to use in the future that most kids don’t necessarily see in class every day.”

The Next Generation Science Standards, aimed at K-12 students, emphasize critical thinking and problem-solving skills and, like the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and English, are intended to ensure college-ready U.S. students and for their careers, once they graduate from high school.

“I think students really need to be problem solvers and researchers, and they should be able to work hands-on and through a process of inquiry and discovery, and apply and demonstrate their learning rather than have someone else show, tell, or demonstrate for them,” said Grace Suh, senior program manager for IBM Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs. Teachers’

TryScience is a website developed by IBM in collaboration with the New York Hall of Science and teachengineering.org. It provides teachers with lesson plans with pedagogical strategies for approaching instruction for specific STEM activities. SUH SAYS THAT some IBM volunteers rely on teachers’ TryScience classes when mentoring youth. 

While mentors can be educators, they can also be professional role models. Just as the young girls in Weiler’s Arizona high school learn from successful women in STEM, so do high school, and early college students gain insight from them. IBM hosts Bluemix Girls’ Nights evening gatherings across the country where high school and early college students have the opportunity to meet female engineers at a time when they might be thinking about career options. During these events, young women have the opportunity to seek advice and learn how to apply technology to real-world problems, said Diane Melley, vice president of IBM Global Citizenship Initiatives.

“We really think, with the way the economy is sailing, that no matter what industry you’re in, the fastest growing fields across all industries really require science, technology, engineering, and math,” she notes. Our main motto is empowering kids to learn new skillsets with emerging technology.