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Stand Behind STEM/STEAM Programming

STEM projects build on the natural curiosity of children while teaching the scientific method, engineering, physics and biology, and let kids try on careers at an early age.
Monica Schnitger Monica Schnitger

I am lucky. I get to attend a lot of events that showcase design and engineering technology—tools to make our jobs more efficient. Nearly every event today includes a STEM component, projects that showcase a commitment to science, technology, engineering and math education. If you’ve seen FIRST Robotics or a Science Olympiad, you’ve seen STEM in action.

Participants in these programs start young: Elementary school kids build machines and other cool stuff in the FIRST LEGO League, or try to catch and catalog bugs at a local playground during a Science Olympiad “Don’t Bug Me Day.” These projects build on the natural curiosity of children while teaching the scientific method, engineering, physics and biology, and let kids try on careers at an early age.

As students progress to middle and high school, the projects become more complex. At a FIRST Robotics competition, you’ll see industrial scale robots race one another along an obstacle course, throw basketballs and climb poles to get to the platform at the top. By the time their competition ends, these students know how to look at a problem, formulate possible solutions and investigate those possibilities to find what can realistically be accomplished with the materials and time allowed—and they’re not hamstrung by what didn’t work before; they’re willing to explore a much wider solution set than more experienced (and jaded) engineers might consider.

STEM: The Good and the Bad

The good part: These kids are sought by universities. MIT professor Woodie Flowers, one of the founders of FIRST, once told me participating in FIRST improves a youth’s odds of getting into a top-tier college. These students already have critical thinking, teamwork, design and manufacturing skills. They may already know how to use Creo, Inventor, Onshape or SOLIDWORKS CAD products because those companies sponsor FIRST teams. These kids have a head start on the practical side of engineering—whether they go on to study robotics or not.

The bad part: We then take all of the creativity these kids have, their curiosity, their “why not try this?” and stomp it out of them. Corporations like things to be done a certain way; their customers expect generation 2 of a product to be only slightly different from generation 1. Senior engineers and designers have seen and tried many things, and in the interest of saving time and trouble, steer these young engineers toward what has worked in the past and will, therefore, work again. These are important and necessary, but can coexist alongside the creativity of newcomers.

Major industrial companies are pairing junior and senior engineers to strike the right balance of experience and naiveté. Juniors ask questions that seniors perhaps haven’t considered in decades; seniors steer the project and provide guidance that keeps things moving forward. When done well, these partnerships yield two benefits: a junior who grows more quickly than he or she would without this mentoring, and a re-energized senior engineer.

There’s also the tried and true: Move new employees around the parts of the company to see what they learn. My first job in a shipyard had me rotate through the departments. I learned so much—what impact a decision in one department has on another, why yard workers thought office workers were nuts (there was a real lack of communication) where inefficiencies manifested—that really helped when I started my formal job. Yes, I wasn’t all that productive while I was a temp in each department, but I was probably far more effective in the Hull Drawing Room when I finally landed there.

Even the youngest engineers come with all of their prior learning and experiences. Let’s not hire these terrifically creative and skilled workers, and then waste their talents.

If you can, get involved. STEM (or STEAM, which adds Arts) programs always need adult mentors. The two mentioned are Science Olympiad and FIRST.

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About the Author

Monica Schnitger's avatar
Monica Schnitger

Monica Schnitger is the founder, president and principal analyst of Schnitger Corporation. She has developed industry forecasts, market models and market statistics for the CAD/CAM,CAE, PLM, GIS, infrastructure and architectural / engineering / construction and plant design software markets since 1999.

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