Starting young to build a stronger STEM pipeline

Kids learn about robotics

Ask a young child what they want to be when they grow up, and they may respond with popular careers such as doctor, fireman or teacher. A far less likely response? Engineer.

In fact, many children don't have a good understanding of what engineering is or what engineers do.

That lack of understanding at a young age translates into fewer engineering majors by the time children reach college. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that only 4.5 percent of all bachelor's degrees granted in the U.S. in 2012 were in engineering fields.

That's a concern for tech employers who want to stay agile. While emerging fields such as cyber security or autonomous systems offer well-paid, engaging jobs for graduates with the right skills, preparation for an engineering career begins well before declaring a college major.

"President Obama has identified training more engineers as a strategic national priority," said Dean of Engineering Manos Maragakis. "A field like engineering cannot do that overnight. We need to develop a pipeline of technologically advanced talent to meet that need. Our vision for economic diversification and development is very much related to a well-planned, systematic outreach effort. We are developing a system by which children are aware of the requirements and opportunities of a career in engineering."

That pipeline of technologically skilled talent plays a key role in the state's economic development efforts.

"It's that hand-in-hand of if we build it, they will come," said Meg Fitzgerald, coordinator of recruitment and outreach for the College. "We want to keep our workforce here in Nevada because that is the way our state is going to grow."

Growing that pipeline of talent starts young. As the College urges prospective engineering majors to arrive on campus ready for calculus, Fitzgerald and her team are working to get the word out to middle and early high school students that math preparation is critical to college success.

"The overall umbrella that drives what we do is the belief that if we can get students interested in engineering at an earlier age, it encourages interest in classes that will get them ready for engineering when they get to college," said Fitzgerald.

The College of Engineering, in partnership with the College of Education as well as numerous local education and outreach agencies, has taken a two-pronged approach to spurring that interest. The first, which includes summer camps, coding contests and the Mobile Engineering Education Lab, aims to get kids excited about engineering.

"Nevada still has such a high first-generation college going rate," said Fitzgerald. "You get kids that don't have a family member who has gone to college and don't know the first thing about engineering. Again, it's exposure."

The second focus, which includes a new faculty position and courses developed in partnership with the College of Education, aims to get their teachers excited about engineering.

Last spring, engineering professors Jeffrey LaCombe and Eric Wang teamed up with education professor David Crowther to develop an engineering course for K-12 teachers. The course gave teachers an engineering perspective on math and science by focusing on the engineering design process and its applications in real-world problem solving.

"The piece where these teachers are going to be trained to teach engineering lessons takes it one step farther," said Fitzgerald. "It's not just, ‘Come to college, get a degree in engineering,' it's ‘This is what engineering is and here's how it applies to everyday life.' If we can get kids at a young age engaged in an educational process that gets them involved in a career path, then I think that's what it's all about."

girls in engineering camp

The College's outreach efforts have grown in recent years to target both emerging industries within engineering and also diverse student populations. In the past two years, the College has introduced three new offerings into its popular summer camp program: a camp focused on unmanned autonomous systems debuted in 2014 and camps focused on women in engineering and first-generation college students are now in their second year.

"Anybody who comes from a different background brings a different way of thinking to the table. They bring their experiences with them," said Fitzgerald. "Engineers are solving problems that people face on a day-to-day basis."

Getting those diverse brains and backgrounds to the table involves a lot of work, from sparking an interest in a 4th grader to encouraging a middle school student to stick with tougher math classes to helping a high school senior navigate the college application process. But on graduation day, as new engineers walk toward bright futures, the pipeline is complete.

"It really is making a world of difference," said Fitzgerald. "It's making a world of difference in each of these kid's lives so they can achieve more than they ever thought possible."