There is increasing outcry over the need for improved science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. It's such an important issue that it's become a political hot button. Many are lobbying for more government funding of STEM programs as part of a broader strategy to bring US manufacturing and innovation back to its glory days.
Design competitions are one way vendors are doing their part. By sponsoring teams at the grade school, high school, and university levels, they hope to ignite that competitive spark that nurtures a lifelong love of technology and draws students into engineering professions.
Click on the image below to see highlights of the projects borne from some intense design competitions:
The Gerber-sponsored student team's robot in the FIRST Robotics Competition has a tank tread conveyor system that is designed to draw game pieces in the form of racket balls into the system and up into a basket. (Source: Gerber Technology)
Beth, these are interesting projects and competitions. Hopefully they will have the desired effect. First Robotics is a great activity. I have seen it from high school to university. It really stimulates people to work on these things. Another fun one, although maybe not so benign, is robot wars. I first saw this in British TV when I was in England. My boys loved it.
A couple of years ago there was a solar vehicle race that ended in our town. My oldest son went with me to watch the finish. It really encouraged him.
I agree that these programs are instrumental to getting young people interested and engaged in STEM careers and opportunities. I think beyond the local school-sponsored events, which are no doubt awesome, the programs that are sponsored and orchestrated by big business (like the Shell EcoMarathon and others that are similar) really do a lot. Not only do they foster an interest in engineering, but they go a long way in helping up and comers make the connection between innovation and real business needs and that is what is really important in terms of nurturing the next generation of engineers.
@NadineJ: I'm not sure what effect these competitions are having, but I do think that engineering is (slowly) becoming less male-dominated. However, progress is uneven among engineering disciplines.
When I was in college -- a little less than a decade ago -- nearly half of the chemical and biomedical engineering students were women. There were fewer women in civil engineering, fewer still in electrical engineering, and hardly any in mechanical and aerospace engineering. (I don't have actual numbers; these are just my impressions).
In my own department, materials engineering, there were only three women undergraduates, but there were only about a dozen total students. Overall, women seem to be better represented in materials engineering than in most other engineering disciplines besides chemical and biomedical.
It would be interesting to know why some disciplines have remained more male-dominated than others.
@ChasChas: I think it's very unlikely that women are deterred from becoming engineers because of an aversion to logical thinking; after all, about half of math majors are women. (I also don't think it's the case that chemical engineering requires any less logical thinking than mechanical engineering). I think the issues have more to do with the culture in the various engineering professions. The mechanical engineering culture in particular remains a very male-dominated culture.
@DavePalmer: I would have to agree with Dave in terms of some of the discipline choices being tied to cultural issues.
I think industry is desperately trying to shift that focus by putting a huge emphasis on promoting STEM careers to women these days. I recently had the opportunity to sit in on a curriculum briefing for new parents at our high school (my son is heading into 9th grade) and there is a whole new track on technology and science courses, one of which is specifically aimed at girls and in fact, is not open to any boys. Also, many of these student competitons are aimed squarely at women. I attended a CAD vendor's briefing last year and they had a professor at MIT come up and talk specifically about a rigorous summer program offered to girls in middle and high school as a means of promoting an orientation in STEM education.
I've seen that too, Beth, regarding the push for women in STEM. DeVry University invited me to speak to a group of high school counselors that they were hosting, and asked me to speak specifically about women in engineering.
Hi, Nancy. My Dad helped me with science-fair projects, but I did the work. Dad used the power saw and worked with me to figure out dimensions and took me to buy chemicals and supplies. In high school, though I was pretty much on my own with electrical projects that involved relays, switches, and diodes. Good fun.
That brings back great memories, too, Jon. I remember we set up a fan for our son to use to run his tests with his wind turbine in the hallway of our house. He used his Dad's meter to measure the voltage in response to the wind speed.
After he built three different model rockets to evaluate how aerodynamic each design was, we made it a picnic at the park and shot off the rockets and measured the altitude of each. That was a lot of fun.
As a woman, I think you are more on the mark, Dave (Besides, I have a terrible memory so I have to be logical LOL)It can be initimidating to work in a mostly male environment - it takes the ability to be flexible and to have a sense of humor and not take things too seriously at times,while always maintaining your integrity. I have also had to prove myself more than my male colleagues on some occasions because of cultural biases.
That's a good question, NadineJ. As a father of two daughters, I would hope more girls are participating in STEM school projects and in careers, especially since women are making such advances in most areas of higher education. Not sure, though.
I agree that first one was a complex design, Chuck. I was impressed with the high level of complexity all through this slide show. It makes me wonder to what degree CAD programs and simulation were involved. I would imagine computers might be behind this new level of complexity.
Almost all engineering programs require learning CAD and simulation applications as part of the curriculum--in fact, most of the CAD/CAE/PLM vendors are heavy donators of their software licenses to schools and sponsors of these types of competitions. This is all in the hopes that these students who are trained on their systems will graduate and fast become engineers (with buying muscle) who are trained on their software, therefore prefer their offerings to competitors. It's a market development strategy, to be sure.
Getting students hooked on the software is a clever long-term marketing strategy. I remember Apple flooding schools with Apple computers in the mid-1980s -- supported by Ted Kennedy. Millions of kids came out of public schools with a bias toward Apple.
Excellent point. I think many universities are realizing that students want their courses to remain relavent, interesting and worthwhile. The very best courses I had during my university years were conducted by professors who had "been there and done that". Hands on experience wrapped around good sound principals always holds a sudents interest. "Book learning" is fine but it must be shown to be useful in solving problems.
I agree, bobjengr. Good professors, especially those with a wealth of professional experience, can make potentially mundane classes into inspiring ones. It's really too bad that many university engineering programs have so few of those teachers.
I have almost 20 years of electrical engineering experience which includes design, project and technical lead so when I recently had the opportunity to teach an engineering course at a university I was so excited. I did notice a lack in teaching students real world stuffs such as simple ESD or reading and understanding datasheets. So I try to design my class assignments and projects to mimic real world situations.
In times past, the degree of enthusiasm outweighed the degree of difficulty relative to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). I certainly hope those days are returning and we see many more students entering areas involving technology and math.I am somewhat pessimistic about the return of manufacturing to our country, at least to the extent we enjoyed in the 50s, 60s and 70s.As we all know, manufacturing, at one time, was the engine that provided paydays for many many engineers and designers.I will say this, several companies I do business with are bringing products and assemblies "home" due to less than acceptable quality and reliability.They are also finding procurement and communication can be a real problem and have decided that higher costs are acceptable relative to the chaos and delays involved with doing business overseas.The down side is we have lost one entire generation as far as experience.Let's hope competition such as the one Beth has shown us will stimulate additional entry into STEM professions.
@bobengr: I'm with you in hoping that these competitions can stimulate more interest in STEM jobs as a career. I think that just seeing the fruits of these student competitors' labor shows how engineering and manufacturing jobs are evolving in this day and age and how it demands a very different skill set than what was expected in the earlier decades.
Chuck: I believe the Buckeye Bullet still holds the record for fastest EV. These guys are pushing the envelope so much that President Obama recently visited them and highlighted their work as part of recent tour to promote US manufacturing.
Good article. I'd like to add that every one of these teams of students has engineers like us mentoring them, encouraging them, and helping them develop buildable robots out of sometimes challenging brainstorm session outcomes. The only thing limiting even more teams being formed is local engineers volunteering to get involved. You can really make a difference! Watching these kids eyes light up when something they daydreamed becomes a working piece of equipment is incredible! Find a team and get involved.
Are you talking about giving money to the same people that graduate students that can't read, write, or count? I don't see this public school black hole funding trough helping anybody. I think it is up to families and industry, not the government. Every time they try to "help" it hurts the kids and the process.
No. The solution doesn't lie in the government in any way. Get the government out of the way so business can grow. Once the demand is there and the wages good, the kids will follow the money. Always have. Always will. Remember it was the government who shipped our jobs overseas to begin with after hundreds of years keeping it at home.
I agree, Warren, that getting the government out of the way would certainly be the best solution and letting private industry take the lead is the better option. There are a number of companies in the area where I live (including the one I work at) that sponsor various teams and competitions. Not only are they helping train the next generation, they are building good-will in the community.
Students start to develop keen interests in math, music, science, art, sports, and other areas in the 4th and 5th grade (ages between about 8 and 11). That's the time to introduce STEM information in class activities. If we wait until they get to high school, many of the elementary-school kids with an interest in STEM-type activities will have found something else to get involved with.
I'm no fan of FIRST. I have talked with teams where parents and "mentors" took over and the kids didn't get involved much in the project. Also, a few years ago several parents on different teams said most of the team spent all its time on raising funds rather than working on the final project. It costs a lot of money to enter a FIRST competition. I recommend our schools take a different path to STEM programs and activities.
I think hooking kids early is important as well although you have to consider the burn-out factor. Parents and mentors can be a problem. You can see this in everything these days--from sports to recreational clubs to college essays. Helicopter parents trying to recapture or perhaps capture for the first time their glory days while having this obsessive focus on winning. Does our kids no good.
You're right about burn-out, Beth. I wonder how many parents set limits on kids activities and say something like "choose one or two," rather than let the kids try to do everything. And we have all seen pushy parents who thinks must endure the stress of too many activities. As a kid, I got pushed into music and hated playing an instrument. Maybe three years of band looked good on my college application, but it killed any interest I had in music.
If my area is any indication, very few parents set limits on kids activities. I think as parents we have to set a fine line between encouraging participation and performance in programs, whether it's sports or a FIRST robot competition, and becoming so blindsided to the win that we interfere to the point where it's a real turn off for the kids involved. And just because a kid walks away at some point from a love of robots or science fairs, doesn't mean they won't come back to the vocation especially if it's not pushed on them.
Jon, I think you are right on the mark about introducing kids to STEM in fourth and fifth grades. Science fairs are a great way to do just that - we always made it a family affair in that while our son did the work, we supported him and cheered him on, taking an active interest and helping him to understand how to accomplish his task. He made a wind turbine in third grade, a hovercraft in fourth grade, and did aerodynamics in model rocketry in fifth grade. He just got accepted into early college high school. As parents we have always made education a priority without pushing - by trying to instill a love of learning, and we started early.
Since 1987, teams of engineers around the world have built solar cars to participate in a road race around Australia called the World Solar Challenge, being tested on the race time, kilometers traveled, practicality, and energy used by the vehicles they invent.
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