Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Early motivation leads to success in STEM

Published: February 22, 2012

Most engineers can recall when their interest in engineering was sparked at a young age. Some recall taking toys apart and rebuilding them. Others had a parent in the industry or an outstanding teacher or a camp or extracurricular activity that ignited a passion. But as economic growth becomes increasingly driven by the ability to generate ideas and translate them into innovative products and services, it becomes more apparent that all children should be prepared for a world immersed in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

This is National Engineers Week, a time to celebrate the advancements in the field. It's also a time to encourage current and future generations to explore the career possibilities in engineering. Recent studies show the importance of engaging middle school students with STEM education as it prepares them for the high school courses necessary to pursue engineering in college. Simply exposing teens to engineering was found to double career interest in our field. That's why Oklahoma engineering colleges and professional societies continue to put forth a number of creative initiatives to help fill the pipeline for engineering talent.

A recent example is the autonomous aerial vehicle, or drone contest, held at the University of Oklahoma's College of Engineering. Students as young as 14 were programming flying robots to cooperate with ground robots — a challenge perhaps more typical of college-level projects. The students not only accepted the challenge but also rose above the expectations by thinking outside the known limitations of aerial vehicles.

Our knowledge-based economy will grow through innovation, which relies on critical and creative thinking. Nearly all jobs — not just engineering jobs — will require skills gained through STEM education. All of us should support youthful interests in solving the problems they see around them, as they learn how things work and discover how to improve products and processes.

Through partnerships with K-12 schools, higher education can offer engaging STEM activities outside of the classroom. An example is the Sooner Engineering Education Center's summer engineering academy. The workshop, offered at no charge to participants, focuses on showing teachers and students how engineering methods help solve real-world problems. Industry also plays an important role in encouraging STEM in young students, offering mentorship and training for students considering majoring in STEM fields.

As part of National Engineers Week, I challenge all Oklahomans to expand the STEM reach beyond those with an early desire to be an engineer or those with a scientific role model in their early years. Let's find opportunities throughout the year to ignite interest in STEM for every student, to help them achieve their full potential.

Landers is dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Engineering.

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