30 Apr Silver linings in the cloud: America's dearth of STEM students
Madison, Wis. – It would be impressive enough if the robotics engineering team from Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School in St. Louis Park, Minn., had won a national championship against other high-school teams.
It’s even more impressive that their competitors were seasoned college students.
Led by instructor Timothy Jump, students from the Minneapolis-area school competed against graduate-level college students in the 2005 U.S. Open RoboCup. Using robots to navigate a simulated disaster scene, the students were able to collect, analyze, and provide data to rescue teams that enabled them to proceed into a disaster area with minimized risk. After winning the national cup, Jump’s students represented the United States at the world championships in Japan, finishing in the top echelon.
Skeptics might dismiss it as a freak event – except that Jump’s high-energy, hands-on approach to engineering education is producing award-winning science and engineering students, year after year. Not only is Benilde-St. Margaret’s attracting the notice of major colleges and universities, but it has also drawn the support of businesses that worry about the declining number of U.S. students enrolled in the so-called “STEM” disciplines: science, technology, engineering and math.
Jump will talk about his success June 12 at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee, a city that hopes to dramatically step up its production of STEM-oriented students to help drive its emerging “knowledge-based” economy. Unless the Milwaukee area can produce and retain more students and workers in science, technology, engineering and math, its efforts to revitalize the region’s economy will fall short.
Jump will be introduced at the conference by Tom Gunkel, the president and chief operating officer of M.A. Mortenson Co., a construction firm that has handled projects in 47 states. Mortenson has about 600 employees in the Milwaukee area alone – and a stake in ensuring there are enough skilled workers to power the city’s future.
“We must find ways to excite more students about science and engineering, or we risk our continued success in the 21st century economy,” Gunkel said.
He’s not alone. From the governor’s office to the high-school principal’s office, from corporate boardrooms to the small start-up companies, everyone is worried these days about U.S. competitiveness in science, technology, engineering and math.
Statistics show America is slowly losing ground to the rest of the world when it comes to producing enough future scientists and engineers. In part, that’s because many students aren’t aware of the opportunities in those fields. But it’s also because traditional educational methods don’t always reach today’s students, who may be more likely to learn through a computer screen than a lecture.
Jump’s Advanced Competitive Science curriculum is one approach that has drawn national acclaim. But so have other programs, such as F.I.R.S.T Robotics, LEGO League, and Project Lead the Way. They all have one thing in common: Exciting kids through hands-on instruction.
The work of Project Lead the Way, which has engaged in partnerships with Marquette University, Milwaukee School of Engineering, and UW-Stout, among others, was on display during a recent exhibition in the state Capitol Rotunda. Teams from high schools across the state demonstrated that Wisconsin kids can compete with any in the world – so long as they’re exposed to instructional techniques that spark their interest.
“It engages kids with real-world oriented projects,” said Benjamin Senson, a Madison Memorial High School teacher who has developed one of the nation’s leading aerospace engineering programs. “Kids who go through programs such as Project Lead the Way tend to not change their minds about their majors. They know they like science and engineering.”
The looming shortage of talent is national, and Wisconsin is not immune. Job openings that require expertise in science, engineering, technology and math will climb by 18.3 percent through 2014, compared to about 11.5 percent for all other occupations. While Wisconsin’s science and engineering workplaces are creating about 9,100 openings per year requiring an associate or bachelor’s degree, fewer than 6,000 such degrees are awarded each year in those fields by Wisconsin’s higher education institutions.
We need more students in the STEM disciplines – and we need more teachers like Minnesota’s Tim Jump and Madison’s Ben Senson. The United States must compete in the “knowledge-based” economy of the 21st century, and that begins by producing students who embrace science and engineering.
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