Preparing the next generation of engineers and technologists

08/09/2011
Technology/ STEM
BY BART A. ASLIN and JOHN HELFEN

While experts debate about everyone needing some college education – the workplace is linking middle-class employability to postsecondary education and training. Are parents, teachers and students on the right track?

Every time we turn on the television, media outlets seem to be commenting on the failing education system in this country. At least the word “education” is making the nightly news. We think unparalleled attention being paid to the topic of education and the importance of STEM is long overdue. It’s time for all of us to consider more collaboration for more immediate solutions.
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Virginia Tech Human Powered Sub, designed with Autodesk Inventor.

The SME Education Foundation, headquartered in Dearborn, Mich., is dedicated to the advancement of manufacturing education and preparing the next generation of engineers and technologists. Autodesk, a leader in 3D design, engineering and entertainment software, works to build student skills and engagement in and out of the classroom to prepare them for sustainable careers.

We are now moving toward integrating what each of our organizations does best for the benefit of students, parents and teachers. The challenge begins in elementary schools. The current lack of STEM education in grades K-6 leaves students unprepared for the rigors of engineering education at the secondary and post-secondary level. By the time children are in the fifth grade, they are more likely to shun key classes (e.g. algebra) that are very necessary later on for higher-level coursework. This needs to change with more parental involvement and encouragement from teachers. A STEM-based education provides students with an ability to solve problems, as well as think and prioritize. 

But the cost of higher education continues to outpace the rise in the cost of health care and median family income. As the education system remains unchanged and costs continue to rise, the return on investment is eroding. If the current pace continues, higher education will be placed out of reach of for many Americans. Even families who can afford the education will question whether it is worth it as the return on investment dwindles. We can all agree the investment is worth it.

When considering current workforce projections, students and parents need to think about and plan for the future. Thinking ahead and setting up a plan – however modest –is important.

Each of our organizations is focused on education through our respective partnerships with Project Lead The Way (PLTW). The SME Education Foundation has accelerated its efforts through relationships with business and industry to deliver STEM-based programs and expand job growth, while Autodesk is regarded for its ability to partner with academic leaders and institutions and helping to shape the educational experience.

Programs teaching young people how to lead, work as a team and compete is integral to the classroom experience. It is important they also be encouraged to become more involved in extracurricular activities in the same way they are encouraged to become involved in little league baseball and soccer.

The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) runs an ad campaign stating “there are more than 400,000 NCAA student athletes and just about all of us will be going pro in something other than sports.” Sports teach students how to compete, work as a team, and build leadership. The reality is the NCAA got it right: these students will become engineers, artists, chemists, architects, doctors, and business professionals rather becoming professional athletes.

The Foundation’s Gateway Academy is a summer day camp, where sixth to eighth grade students — both boys and girls — are taught technical skills in addition to their participation in a series of extracurricular activities. Building on their technology-based summer camp experience, they move on to the Gateway to Technology program in high school which includes Engineering Design Principles, Digital Electronics and Specialization courses including Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM). 

In 2010, the SME Education Foundation directed a major portion of its funding to Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) programs at 400 PLTW high schools across the country. This fall, an upgraded curriculum will be offered with an enhanced VEX Robotics Design System endorsed by PLTW.  Students will be given access to real-world robotics in the classroom, alongside their math and science classes. In addition, every PLTW classroom offering the CIM curriculum will have access to participate in the VEX Robotics Competition. 

When lecturing in university or technical classrooms, gaining a “feel for the room” is an important driver of the conversation. Who has design experience? Who has been exposed to CAD/CAM/CAE tools outside of the classroom?  Where did they gain the experience? Students who have experience coming into the post-secondary educational environment have several things in common. Most received the exposure and experience in extracurricular educational programs we described — and most are far ahead of the student in the seat next to them.

Project-based programs that focus on STEM education prepare students with skills that others simply do not possess, such as the ability to work on a team, collaborate in a group, or present an idea to an audience. Software and technology should support education, rather than be education. Universities should move away from picks and clicks training and focus on education, and explain the why behind the picks and clicks rather than the how.

It is important that we explain to students how software and technology supports being better engineers through increased efficiency, the ability to quickly explore design alternatives, iterate on ideas, and communicate engineering design intent.

Thinking about and planning education early means elementary school.  Parents need to help guide their children to activities that are both fun and educational. Most children like to build with Legos and in playing are learning to be creative, learning to solve problems, learning to share, learning about structures, and engineering.

Parents and students might also consider being involved in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization.

FIRST programs introduce engineering technology to students as early as grades  K through third with Jr. FIRST Lego League, FIRST Lego league for grades four to eight, and FIRST Robotics for grades nine to 12. Watching fifth graders build robots out of LEGO® MINDSTORMS® NXT is a sight to be seen.

After high school, students can pursue project-based activities on campus. Programs like the Human Powered Sub Competition allow students to apply their knowledge to a real-world engineering competition.

Other innovative and helpful resources designed to reinforce that pathway to education excellence are the Foundation’s websites www.manufacturingiscool.com and www.CareerMe.org and Autodesk’s http://usa.autodesk.com/education.

Bart A. Aslin is the chief executive officer of the SME Education Foundation in Dearborn, Mich. Visit the SME Education Foundation at www.smeef.org. John Helfen is an education solution specialist at Autodesk. For additional information about Autodesk, visit www.autodesk.com.
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