Engineering the next generation of STEM

-March 01, 2012

The engineering industry is concerned about the lack of interest in STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) studies and careers from the youth of the United States. Some in the electronics industry refer to this concern as the “engineering crisis.” The fear is that, as baby boomers exit the work force, there will be too few engineers to replace them. The problem has reached all levels of public acknowledgment—from President Obama’s commenting on the need for STEM graduates in his January 24 State of the Union address to Sesame Street, which is incorporating more science and technology into its programming and which made “engineer” a word of the day in a September 2011 episode.

Engineering the next generation of STEM imageDespite these concerns, more undergraduate students graduated in 2011 than in 2010 with engineering degrees in all of the eight top engineering disciplines—aerospace, biomedical, chemical, civil, computer, electrical and electronic, mechanical, and nuclear (Reference 1). Yet, at a year-over-year increase of only 5071 new US bachelor’s degrees in engineering for a total of 84,599 new degrees in 2011, the numbers are low, especially when you compare them with estimates from the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology describing a need for 1 million more STEM graduates over the next decade (Reference 2). Moreover, new degrees for electrical and electronic engineering declined from 2005’s high of 14,742 through 2010’s 11,968, only to inch up last year with an additional 37 degrees for 12,005 new degrees total in 2011.

Steve Lyle, director of education, work-force development, and diversity at Texas Instruments, admits that the number of engineering graduates is a concern. “The competition today for STEM talent is very, very tight in the United States,” he says, noting that, although the unemployment rate remains generally high in the United States, the rate is below 4% for electrical engineers. “From an education standpoint, we [and our competitors] recognize that other countries—namely, India and China—are outpacing us in the number of engineers that are coming out of their universities.”

TI, like many other electronics companies, isn’t ignoring the problem. Instead, it’s working toward a fix. The company has invested more than $150 million in STEM programs in the last five years and, like many others in the space, focuses its STEM efforts on student-achievement and teacher-effectiveness programs.

Like TI, Microchip Technology has engaged in STEM efforts through similar programs. “In the US political circuit, we often talk about the end product, which is jobs, but that [product] is the output of the rest of it,” says Steve Sanghi, Microchip’s president and chief executive officer. “We have to work on it well ahead of time and get kids excited about science, math, engineering, and technology. Corporations need to help nurture the resources and the community in which they operate. That [goal is] what we are trying to [achieve]: Prepare our future engineers; prepare our future employees; and educate the youth in math, science, engineering, and technologies.”

Both Microchip and TI are proponents of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an international program for children that combines hands-on, interactive robotics with a sportslike atmosphere and that provides more than $14 million in college scholarships. FIRST started in 1989 with approximately 20 teams. It has grown to more than 26,800 teams and currently reaches nearly 300,000 students. That growth is clear evidence that STEM can attract new young talent.

Microchip is the organizing sponsor of the FIRST Robotics Competition Arizona Regional, and Sanghi, who is also a member of the FIRST board of directors, notes that the competition had to turn away teams because of venue size. Next year, organizers may add a second competition or utilize a larger venue to accommodate more teams.

Carol Popovich, senior community relations representative for FIRST and Vex Robotics and a 16-year Microchip veteran whose full-time job is to work within the community on STEM, expects further expansion in the future. She notes a dramatic 30% growth in 9- to 14-year-old participants in the local FIRST Lego League in 2011 and anticipates that these young participants will continue to explore robotics as they enter high school. Popovich is one of approximately 40 Microchip employees involved in the competition. She describes the programs as having “a high fun quotient” that keeps not just the kids but also the sponsors and mentors returning each year.

Mentoring and hiring

Daniel Kinzer, a technical-support engineer who has worked at Raytheon for 28 years, started volunteering six years ago with his local high school’s robotics club. The club’s 40 students are spread over three FIRST Tech Challenge teams, which Raytheon sponsors. On a strictly volunteer basis, he spends four to five hours a week at Palm Harbor University High School (Palm Harbor, FL) during the building cycle and double that time, plus weekends, during competitions. “If I could retire, I’d do this full time,” Kinzer says. “I’m not sure who’s having more fun—me or the kids!”

Kinzer requires his teams to apply a full discipline to their projects. “The robotics portion isn’t just robotics. It’s mechanics, it’s physics, it’s programming, [and] it’s engineering documentation,” he says. “It’s the difference between a bunch of kids molding things together until it works and [kids] really thinking out the process and identifying how things are going to work. Those are the types of abilities that [make you not only a] successful engineer but also successful in life.” As a mentor, Kinzer recognizes that he is there to guide the students, not direct them. “I really don’t like giving students ideas,” he explains. “I only want [them] to expand on theirs. That [factor is] a key element of [being] a mentor.”

Ed Smith, president of Avnet Electronics Marketing Americas, has previously mentored younger employees and interns at the company and has also tried to develop next-generation talent as a former president of the National Electronics Distributors Association Education Foundation. Smith advises mentors to listen more than they talk when working with their students. He also reminds mentors to be cautious of time commitments when entering a mentoring relationship. Recognition that the student’s time is as valuable as the mentor’s time is significant. “Don’t do it unless you have the right amount of time,” says Smith. “If you don’t have the right amount of time, it really frustrates [the mentees]. They don’t feel important.”

Respecting the importance of the mentees, not only about their available time but also about the value of their ideas, goes a long way and is key to a rewarding experience for both parties. “A lot of these students tend to take us under their wing, as well,” says Stewart Christie, product-marketing engineer in the intelligent-systems group at Intel. Christie works with interns at Intel; is engaged in student robotics and STEM activities at local schools; and often acts as a judge and a mentor in student competitions, including this spring’s Cornell Cup, a college-level embedded-design competition. Intel and Tektronix sponsor this competition, which gives teams the opportunity to win as much as $10,000 (references 3 and 4). “It’s great to have the fresh perspective and a much younger outlook than some of us here have [at the office]. It’s a mutual respect,” Christie says.

“We who have been in the work force for a long [time] don’t appreciate that what took us awhile to learn these young kids seem to have in their genes,” says Pranav Mehta, senior principal engineer and chief technology officer for the intelligent-systems group at Intel. “It is amazing how advanced they are. If you just point them in the right direction, the kind of results that they can produce is mind-boggling. Many of my years-old assumptions shatter in seconds. Knowledge of society and the collective conscience has advanced to a point where these kids just see things that some of us cannot.”

That excellence has encouraged Intel, as well as Avnet and TI, to hire many of its mentored interns. The companies often bring in young talent through internships or cooperative arrangements and then place them into rotational programs, allowing them to test-drive several design and business units. “As you increase the number of students coming in from college campuses, it’s more important to have very robust development programs,” says TI’s Lyle, who notes that even TI’s current chief executive officer, Rich Templeton, started at TI on a rotational basis. “We want to expose them to as many aspects of TI as possible so that they feel like they are getting a good start at the company.”

The companies rarely work a continued mentoring responsibility into job descriptions, but, as Lyle says, “Part of being a leader is leading people. Part of leading a group is either directly providing that mentorship or ensuring that individuals in the organization, especially your high-potential talent, have the proper mentorship. It’s not necessarily written down in everyone’s job description, but it is understood that [mentoring] is an important part of leadership.”

Getting on the STEM path

Chris Gammell, a 28-year-old analog engineer, didn’t wander into STEM until a high-school physics class sparked an interest. “My high-school physics teacher was really engaging,” he says. “That set it off. I was always a science geek, but I had never done electronics before that. That’s a big problem.

“My first digging into circuits was a co-op, and I just kind of hacked along,” Gammell explains. “I’m a big proponent of co-ops. That’s where I really learned how to solder. Someone finally sat me down and said, ‘You’re doing this wrong; let’s show you how to do this.’ There are a lot of engineers like that. As long as you actually want to listen and learn and you aren’t egotistical about it, mentors are around and are gold.”

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Mentoring college students, interns, and entry-level employees helps cement STEM interest and give rise to young careers—a necessary effort because 45% of students who receive engineering degrees are not practicing engineers 10 years later, according to the ASEE (American Society of Engineering Education). But tapping interest at a younger age is important, as well. “[Kindergarten to Grade 12] is where it all starts,” says Susan Donohue, general co-chairwoman of the IEEE Integrated STEM Education Conference, program chairwoman elect of the ASEE K-12 program, and lecturer at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science. “If you [shortchange] them at the K-12 level, it’s going to be so hard for them to catch up, and we can’t afford to lose anybody.”

Donohue has for several years been presenting engineering-teaching-kit workshops through the ASEE and Frontiers in Education. These kits include such tools as lesson plans, objectives, worksheets, bills of materials, and project materials, when possible. The self-contained kits enable teachers to open them and immediately bring more STEM into the classroom.

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National Instruments has also taken steps to bring more STEM directly into the K-12 classroom. “We’ve had data come in that suggests that, if we don’t have [children] interested before seventh and eighth grade, the likelihood [that they will go] into an engineering career is less,” says Amanda Webster, community-relations manager at NI. For that reason, NI partners with Lego Group for educational robots and includes work with the FLL (FIRST Lego League) among its STEM and mentoring activities. FLL is an alliance between FIRST and the Lego Group that uses robotics to ramp up excitement about STEM at an earlier age than the FIRST Robotics Competition or FIRST Tech Challenge.

“I don’t think that Dr T, our founder, thought that, years down the road, this high-tech company would be partnering with this toy company. But, with Lego being a top brand … , it has been a huge opportunity for us to get into the K-12 space,” says Webster. “[Lego] lends credibility when you are standing in front of a 7-year-old trying to get him or her interested in math and science concepts that, unfortunately, even young children are showing a disinterest in.”

When looking at root causes of the lack of interest, NI finds that a lot of teachers are either not interested in this area or feel that this area is not their strong suit. “We don’t have a lot of EEs graduating and then going back to teach elementary school,” Webster explains. “Our society has built up this dynamic [of not encouraging STEM to younger children. So] more than 150 [NI] employees go in, week after week, to the same classroom with the same teacher and students. As they go in every week, [they become] role models.”

In the past, NI teamed with local universities to train its employees before they entered classrooms and began mentoring. Currently, the company hosts its own technical training for mentors and relies on teachers to help set expectations for the mentor’s role in the classroom. “The training helps, but there is certainly a little trial by fire,” Webster says. “By session two or three, the kids know them, and they become superheroes in the classroom. So it’s just getting past that barrier and fear of going in.”

That fear can be a major barrier when a STEM professional considers entering a classroom or working one on one with next-generation talent as a mentor. “After all, we are talking about science and engineering, and these systems can be very complex,” says Dave Wilson, academic-relations director at NI. “But we have to take small steps and be willing to have something not work. While these things can be daunting, the technology is really reaching a point where it helps out a lot. Just try it.”

“Do engineering”

One of the best ways to encourage interest in STEM is to let children actually engineer or, as Naomi Price, online brand manager for Innovation Generation, says, “let them get their hands dirty.” Innovation Generation, or iGen, is a Web site that aims to develop excitement about STEM for the K-12 segment. UBM Electronics, the parent company of EDN, owns iGen, which hosts LED challenges that see student teams design and build based on a provided kit. For the fall 2011 iGen LED Challenge, the sponsored kit had a value of approximately $150 and included LEDs and a microcontroller. Students blog about their progress as their projects move along. In January, iGen named the “Spectacular Seven” team from Oak Canyon Junior High (Lindon, UT) as the winner of the fall challenge. The seven girls on the team, along with their teacher and their mentor, built a small Christmas tree made from PVC (polyvinyl-chloride) piping and loaded with flashing LEDs on the branches and a star on the top that flashes a countdown sign. “We’re seeing a lot of energy from these kids,” Price says, commenting on all of the teams who entered the challenge. “They are actually building something, and that [step] is important.”

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As part of its STEM efforts, MathWorks emphasizes hands-on, project-based learning. “I see more and more professors looking to integrate projects into their classrooms to get students excited and get a better understanding of what they are actually going to be doing when they graduate,” says Tom Gaudette, principal education evangelist at the company. MathWorks has had close links to academia since its inception; its first customer was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Part of the company’s support for project-based learning comes from its work on an integrated curriculum that includes its tools, as well as its work to provide support materials for those tools, such as free video tutorials.

The company works with universities to incorporate these tools, starting in basic classes and throughout the education process, so that students spend less class time on tool review and more on theory and lab work. “Having those base learning classes where students come in and are able to touch and feel and try to program a robot or try to control something gives the student a better idea of what it is to be an engineer versus freshman classes [such as] calculus, where they may not get the insight into what it is to be an engineer,” Gaudette says.

MathWorks also supports hands-on engineering through EcoCar 2, a three-year competition during which engineering students design and build environmentally friendly vehicles. MathWorks equips all 16 participating university teams with its tools for model-based design, including Matlab and Simulink. “EcoCar is teaching that process where you … do the design work and go through all the way to the last year of the competition, where you actually have a car driving around with the algorithms that the students created running on systems,” Gaudette says. “That [achievement is] pretty impressive for undergraduate students. [When they graduate], they can say, ‘I built a car, and I was part of a team that worked and did it all.’”

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NI’s Wilson reiterates this need for actually engineering to attract new engineers: “Theory is important. Simulation has its place, but, at some point, we honestly believe that a big answer to the question of how to attract, inspire, and ultimately mint new scientists and engineers is to give them the experiences and do engineering—not only theorize about it, not only conceptualize it, and not only simulate it. Those are parts of a process that have to culminate in the ‘do-engineering’ experience. If we can give relevant, exciting, real, experiential elements to students, the response can be very good.”

Supporting that view, NI offers reasonably priced versions of its university- and student-targeted tools—ELVIS (Educational Laboratory Virtual Instrumentation Suite) and myDAQ (data-acquisition). ELVIS, a LabView-based design and prototype platform for universities, has midpoint prices of approximately $2000; myDAQ, a student-owned measurement-and-control tool that is slightly bigger than an iPhone, has student pricing as low as $175. “[The myDAQ tool] gives extensibility of the lab time to the students so they can experience the instrumentation as well as create their own instrumentation anyplace in or outside the lab,” Wilson says. “We’re seeing little back rooms and small areas with a table suddenly becoming labs because students can walk in with their laptop, myDAQ, and a little accessory board; plug in; and do their labs right there.”

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With lab time often scarce, such nooks of engineering practice are becoming more commonplace on college campuses, as well as elsewhere. As the “maker movement” continues rising with, as Gammell describes, “a resurgence of electronics and kits,” so do hacker spaces. “I never realized that the students who come to these [hacker-space] meetings aren’t allowed to solder in the dorms,” says Intel’s Christie. “They have to have a place to go where it is safe for them to use power tools and those sorts of equipment. Often, those tools are not available at the university.”

Signal received

The need for more next-generation skilled STEM professionals is on the radar of companies and individuals, and, as such, they just may beat the engineering crisis. Still, much more effort is necessary. “We all need to participate in this [effort],” says NI’s Wilson. “We need not to be so focused on the fact that there is a problem. We’ve figured that out. Now, let’s challenge ourselves to bring our best ideas to the table. And let’s set the bar—for pricing, accessibility, functionality, and ease of use for educators. If we do that, everyone will respond. But a fully defined problem is a half-solved problem. We need to start with the challenges. Once the constraints are clear, people will be really creative on how to solve them.”


You can reach Managing Editor, Online, Suzanne Deffree at 1-631-266-3433 and suzanne.deffree@ubm.com.

References
  1. “Bachelor’s degrees in engineering, by discipline, 2002–2011,” Engineering Workforce Commission.
  2. Deffree, Suzanne, “President Obama: We need 1 million STEM graduates,” EDN, Feb 7, 2012.
  3. Deffree, Suzanne, “The next generation:amazing student innovation andthe Cornell Cup,” EDN Tech Clips.
  4. Cornell Cup USA,” Cornell University.

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