Early exposure to engineering leads bright young minds into the field

Early exposure to engineering can pave a positive path for the future. Engineering-focused summer camps prove to be huge influences on young people, says managing editor Ken Schnepf in his latest column.

By Ken Schnepf

While the regular school year is just getting underway, more than 1,000  students just completed the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) Science, Technology & Engineering Preview Summer (STEPS) camp program. Middle-school and high-school students from throughout the country participated in camps where the curricula focused on aerospace, rocketry and robotics along with hands-on laboratory experience as well as academic study and recreational activities.

“We are trying to stress we are addressing the pipeline issue,” explains Bart Aslin, SME’s chief foundation officer. “The more students we can get in the pipeline, the better. We introduce them to the wonders of math, science and engineering.”

Each year through 2012, industry will need 17,000 industrial/manufacturing engineers, 14,000 mechanical engineers, 14,000 engineering technicians and 273,000 metal and plastic production workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. On a 2003 National Association of Manufacturing survey of U.S. manufacturing employers, 80% reported they had a serious problem finding qualified candidates for the highly technical world of manufacturing.

The SME Education Foundation continues to develop programs designed to ignite and fuel the curiosity of young people about the fields of manufacturing, science, engineering and technology. Its ultimate goal is to increase the number of students choosing those fields for careers. Particular emphasis is placed on involving women and minority students, two groups that industry and the profession have recognized as largely untapped pools of talent.

While women comprise half the population and 46% of the labor force, they account for just 9% of engineers, according to the SME. Girls who participate in the STEPS program are 7% more likely to pursue a career in manufacturing engineering than those who don’t.
“We’ve already seen extraordinary results,” says Aslin.

Female students who have participated in the program have gone on to pursue engineering degrees at the U.S. Air Force Academy, MIT and Caltech, and some already have patents he says. Companies such as Caterpillar, Ford and DaimlerChrysler regularly call the SME to recruit employees.

This year, STEPS Academies day camps partnered with Project Lead the Way (PLTW), and were held at Pittsford Middle School, N.Y., El Cajon and Emerald Middle Schools in El Cajon, Calif., and Kearny High School in San Diego. PLTW Inc. is a national program that forms partnerships among public schools, higher education institutions and the private sector to increase the quantity and quality of engineers and engineering technologists graduating from the education system.

Camps also were held at Bradley University, Grand Valley State University, University of Detroit Mercy, University of St. Thomas, University of Wisconsin-Stout and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. New camps for 2006 included Gogebic Community College, Central Michigan University and Oakland Community College.

Founded in 1997, STEPS camp sites have grown to include locations at public schools, colleges and universities in California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York and South Dakota.

The summer camp program grew from a core of 13 camps at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. This year, 1,700 schools across the country served as locations for STEPS Academies. For 2007, the stakes are higher, according to Aslin. SME wants programs in 48 states and at 5,000 schools.

“We believe we built a great model for filling the pipeline with future engineers,” says Aslin.
The SME Foundation tracks the progress of its camp participants. Over the years, it has found that the earlier the students are exposed to engineering, the more likely it is that they will pursue a career in the field, Aslin says. As the program continues to expand, there is always a need for more volunteers to help run the camps as well as more locations to host them.

Those interested in developing a camp at their local schools can contact Aslin at the foundation in Dearborn, Mich. at (313) 425-3300 or visit either www.sme.org/foundation or www.pltw.org.

Additionally, during the past 25 years, the foundation has awarded $2.5 million in scholarships and fellowships and has invested $1.3 million in youth programs and more than $15.5 million in grants.

E-mail Managing Editor Ken Schnepf at kschnepf@putman.net

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