As part of our Rebuilding America series discussing bringing jobs back to the US, I’ve been talking with middle school and high school teachers and mentors to get their thoughts on the state of technical education in the US school system. (You can find related articles by entering "Rebuilding America" into the search window.)
What can our schools do to encourage students to pursue careers in tech? And if students are interested in electronics, are there opportunities for them to learn? How well are our schools preparing those students to pursue a college degree in engineering?
As a physics teacher at The Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, NJ, Michael Liva teaches core physics courses and labs in the science and engineering academies. He also developed and taught a course on energy and engineering and is the advisor for the Titanium Knights robotics team. Here are some of his thoughts on the state of technical education in his area:
Q. In your opinion, is the quality and quantity of the education in your local schools adequately preparing students to pursue higher education and eventual careers in electronics? If not, what measures do you think could or should be taken to reach that goal?
A. Speaking for my school, yes we adequately prepare them. My school has built into its schedule project time for students. Currently I am one of the advisors for the MAKE project. Modeled after MAKE Magazine the students propose their own projects and then design and build them. Many of the projects have electronics and microcontrollers as part of them. So the students do have an opportunity to work with electronics and prepare themselves for further study in college. As I mentioned above more formal courses in addition to the project time would be helpful and further prepare the students. The problem, in my opinion, is that academic courses like AP classes carry more weight for college acceptance than the project based courses. So our best students will load up on AP classes and if they have time take the project based courses. If the colleges made it clear that project based courses, senior projects, or other demonstrations of an academic understanding coupled with a practical application was more desirable than an additional AP class then I think you would see a change.
Q. Does your local school system do enough to interest students in pursuing careers in electronics? If not, what would you suggest be done to improve the programs?
A. I would like to see more electronic electives available at my school. We currently teach a version of the Project Lead the Way - Digital Electronics course. This is a good start and students interested in electronics will continue to study but on their own. I would like to see courses on analog electronics, and microcontrollers that could be offered as electives.
Q. What could the electronics community do to help increase students interested in engineering and science?
A. Outreach programs are useful. I know the professionals are very busy, but providing students the opportunity to work with them is invaluable. With the LED Challenge it would be helpful to get volunteer engineers from industry and assign them to the teams.
Getting working engineers to set up relationships with schools in their communities would be very helpful. They could present to the students what they are working on, arrange field trips to see what an engineering job is like, and act as resources for the students.
Q. Please describe any particular electronics projects or programs you have heard about or participated in that you think were especially useful to students.
A. Our school participates in several outside activities that help the students with electronics. In addition to the Student LED Challenge, we also participate in competitive robot competitions. To build these robots the students must learn the building blocks of a power and control system – battery power, PWM signals, and electronic speed controllers. Information about the robotics program can be found at: http://sites.bergen.org/battlebots/
Our school has also been awarded a Lemelson-MIT Invent team grant. The grant is to develop kits that will allow people to harvest parts from discarded computers and build small energy generators. As part of this we will have to design a power conditioning circuit and produce a finished board. Information about the project can be found at: https://sites.google.com/site/bcalemelsonmit/
Q. What advice would you give parents or mentors who are interested in assisting you with another project?
A. Working with students is a rewarding experience. There is so much criticism of education and students these days, working with young people on projects will give you a different perspective. For parents it is a way to interact with their child that they may not have had before. For mentors from industry it is a way of sharing their experience with the bonus of evaluating potential interns or employees.
Michael Liva has been teaching since 1995. He received a B.S. in Physics from Stevens Institute of Technology and a M.S. in Physics from The Pennsylvania State University.
The team Mike entered the Innovation Generation LED Challenge built an LED version of the Gibson Les Paul Guitar and won the judges’ highest honorable mention. You can read more about the Challenge, his team, and their project on the Innovation Generation site.
The Bergen County Academies uses a different model than most schools. It is a technical school organized into 7 academies. The students in the Science (AAST) and Engineering (AEDT) academies take three years of required physics, three years of required chemistry, and two years of required biology. Their classes meet twice a week so total class time is a little longer than a conventional school, but the students have to “live” with the material over a longer period of time. They believe this helps with retention of the material. http://bcts.bergen.org/index.php/bergen-county-academies