5 Ways to Put STEM into ActionRobynn Andrascek, P.E., Burns & McDonnell | September 22, 2015
I love my job! I like the challenge and the variety of engineering, but most of all, I enjoy sharing my enthusiasm with students in the community through a variety of activities.
You, too, can show your enthusiasm for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) by taking specific actions to excite and educate students.
(Watch a video on how STEM changed the lives of three high school students.)
Numerous opportunities exist and fit a variety of schedules and lifestyles. Connecting with students—preferably face-to-face—is the key factor. The following suggestions are ones that I have tried and found to be personally rewarding.
One of my favorite times of the year is spring because of my involvement with the Greater Kansas City Science and Engineering Fair. Most large school districts and cities have an annual science fair, and some smaller schools hold their own local contests. Judges are always needed and generally no special level of teaching or judging experience is required. Project topics range from chemistry and force/motion to inventions and biology. Fairs are usually held in the spring and judging may require only 3-4 hours in an evening. The basic steps of a Fair project follow the standard scientific method:
- Ask a question
- Do background research
- Construct a hypothesis
- Test the hypothesis by doing an experiment
- Analyze the data and draw a conclusion
- Communicate the results.
I conduct an annual workshop at the fall science fair and kickoff on brainstorming. This helps teach students the free-flowing thought process that leads to developing project ideas. Based on an exercise from my senior year mechanical engineering design class in college, I divide students into small groups and give them a common household object (such as wire coat hanger or an egg carton). They then brainstorm possible uses for the raw material using the classic brainstorming rules: don’t censor ideas, build off each other’s ideas and write it all down.
Judging student project is entertaining and inspirational. At the elementary school level, students learn the importance of documenting the process in a journal and the value of having a hypothesis disproven. At the senior high level, a student’s work can at times mimic the day-to-day work of a professional engineer or scientist. You will be impressed with the sophistication and novelty of the research. The feedback that judges provide on projects fuel students’ excitement to keep learning and experimenting. Now that my own son is old enough to devise and test his projects, I see how exciting participating in a science fair can be for a parent as well as a judge.
My company offers a shadowing program to area high school students. Any student in grade 8 and above can spend half a day at our company, meeting with engineers from different specialties. Whenever the appointments fit into my schedule, I offer to take a session with as many as three students.
The students come to my desk and I explain what I do as an environmental engineer. I show them some of the software programs we use, such as dispersion modeling or predictive noise impacts. I explain how I became interested in engineering, the schools I attended and some of my favorite projects. I tell them about my college internships and the previous engineering companies I worked for, as well as why I left.
The most common question they ask is, “How much money do you make?” I always respond that it’s better to enjoy your job than settle for one that pays the most. I emphasize that math and science are important, but communication skills such as writing and public speaking should not be neglected. A brilliant engineer who can’t communicate is not very valuable. Seeing the excitement in a student’s eyes is well worth an hour of my time.
If your company does not have an established shadowing program, contact your local high school guidance counselors and offer to speak with students interested in engineering. If not, ask your human resources department if such a program can be initiated in your company.
Speaking to Students
Meeting students face-to-face provides an opportunity to see that engineering is an obtainable career. Many schools host career days or programs for which they need external speakers. You don’t have to be a world-class public speaker to answer questions from kids; they appreciate the time you take to meet with them.
I go to schools and universities in my area and speak about a particular local engineering ethics/disaster—the Kansas City Skywalk Collapse. This gives me an opportunity to talk about what engineers do on a daily basis. I explain about the different types of professionals (doctor, lawyers, home inspectors, firefighters, architects, engineers and so on.) and how each professional follows a similar career path: college/technical degree, apprenticeship, on-the-job experience, certification testing and continuous education. I explain what it means to be a professional engineer, specifically:
- Your decisions affect people’s lives
- Your seal is your personal promise that your work is correct
- You are held responsible
- You only do work for which you are qualified
School Clubs and Events
Project Lead the Way (PLTW) is a national organization that promotes STEM in the classroom with specific curriculums and classes. I have spoken in local PLTW classes about the path to becoming an engineer as well as about specific life lessons, such as the importance of active listening, presenting a professional appearance and demeanor and writing thank-you notes. Often these classes have final projects that need judging panels in order to give students experience presenting their work to colleagues.
Many schools now have robotics teams, such as First Lego League or FIRST. (Where were these clubs when I was in school?) Teams often need sponsors and advisors. You do not need anything besides basic engineering skills and time; no previous robotics knowledge is required.
Other short-term, annual events include grading papers or proctoring at a math or science contest, such as MathCounts. Ask your local school’s math and science departments for more information on these. Even if the dates don’t meet your schedule, you can add your name to their list for future needs. Many groups share lists of potential volunteers. This can give you exposure to different activities that may meet your availability.
Reach out to the organizations that you belong to as part of your engineering discipline or college alumni society. Many colleges hold an annual Engineering Week and need professionals to interact with current students. Groups such as the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Engineers without Borders and the Astronomical League host their own outreach events that require community assistance.
The key to hiring a quality engineering workforce is to actively grow potential future employees. With a time commitment of several hours or more, you can mentor and inspire the next generation of engineers.