As you may have already heard, Suzanne Deffree from EDN and I were both keynote speakers at the IEEE ISEC (Integrated STEM Education Conference) in Ewing, NJ, last week. Imagine my surprise at receiving the invitation to speak from IEEE PCJS SSCS Chair Nagi Naganathan back in January. All this time I had been living under the belief that the letters CEO, VP, or PhD needed to follow one’s name to do such a thing! But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn’t want to turn down this opportunity to share the new information I’ve learned about mentoring with a room full of really engaged academics. I tamped down my normal shyness and agreed.
Preparations were made and the big day finally arrived. Suzanne and I tooled from our hotel over to The College of New Jersey and followed the signs to ISEC and the co-located Trenton Computer Festival. We had met Susan Donoghue, General Co-Chair of the conference, and Allen Katz, President of The Trenton Computer Festival, at dinner the night before. Along with Nagi and Ashutosh Dutta, the other General Co-Chair, they gave us a warm welcome to the show and we were off and running. There were presentations of some absolutely incredible STEM programs going on right now and I promise to tell you about many of them in the next few weeks.
I chose to start off my keynote, titled “The Importance of Mentoring in STEM”, with a question to the standing-room-only group of academics: What would your ideal STEM program have? I expected to hear wishes for hardware, software, and myriad other learning tools. What these educators asked for was more collaboration and recognition of the importance of the science, technology, engineering, and math programs they teach.
Surprised and feeling more than a bit chastised, I filed this new info away and vowed to come back to it later. As I went on with the keynote, I shared thoughts from surveys, questionnaires, and discussions with educators, parents, and mentors on the state of technical education in US schools today. The gist of it was that, though our schools are working hard to provide students with engaging STEM programs, more needs to be done.
Some examples: When asked whether schools were doing enough to interest students in pursuing careers in electronics, Laurie Futterman, a Middle School Science Education teacher in Miami, FL, answered emphatically, “No way!! We need curriculum, specific coursework made available to middle school AND high school students. Get them hooked early.”
John Morgan, a very involved parent and engineer in Pennsylvania, felt that his local school was preparing students well, but said, “Due to budget issues, I can see changes occurring. I am fearful that by the time my youngest is in high school, the same opportunities will not be available that were available to my oldest.”
As an inspirational story of a teacher’s success despite many odds, I told of Brian Fuller’s discussion with Don Morgan and Don’s desire to show students that, without ideas and the technology to make them reality, we would all be “out in the yard cold, naked, and hungry.”
After describing the LED Challenges that I run on Innovation Generation, I shared my concern that, despite all the efforts technical adviser Jon Titus and I made to help the teams complete the Challenge successfully, some still were not able to finish. What was the difference between the teams who succeeded and those who didn’t?
You guessed it: Mentors. Partnerships with people like Wayne Rust, Bill Mars, and John Escobar seemed to be one big difference between a team that floundered and one where the students caught the engineering bug and really got excited about the electronics. Sure there were teachers who produced some amazing projects without mentors, but they seemed to be the inspired exception to the rule.
So, how could these teachers find mentors for electronics programs? Parents are a good place to start. Another way is contacting local colleges and universities. One teacher I interviewed had had the terrific idea of contacting the IEEE student chapter of a nearby college. Companies are also becoming more and more willing to lend assistance to local schools. And retired professionals are a great source of knowledge.
Another great way for teachers and engineers to connect is through extracurricular tech programs like TSA (Technology Student Association).
With partnerships between the engineering community and educators, STEM programs can continue to be vibrant and perhaps even manage to provide the tools teachers and students need but are not always able to get through traditional methods.
As Doug Ripka, an Engineering Technology Instructor in Pennsylvania, says, “One teacher can do STEM, yes, but when you bring in people with different strengths, different backgrounds and different specialties and get that teamwork, I think you get a better quality of STEM.”
I’ve talked to the teachers, now my message to the engineering community is: Jump in! If someone from your local school asks for help, by all means say “yes!” Get out there, volunteer, engage, encourage, inspire. The next generation is in school now: Share the buzz you get from electronics – I guarantee that it’s contagious.
Read about the Engineering the Next Generation meet-up at DESIGN West.