Are we ready for the future?
According to the US Department of Education (www.ed.gov/stem) “Only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career.” When we compare that level of readiness to the projected demand for STEM related careers and jobs, it’s easy to see a major problem. The United States of America is at risk of losing its competitive edge in the global talent market.
We need more boys and girls (and their parents, teachers and administrators) to get excited about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. We need to help them develop skills, knowledge and aptitude in the STEM fields. We need to challenge, coach, and nurture their curiosity. And we don’t have much time to get there. 2020 will be here before you know it. Will we have the skilled work force that the market needs?
But before you get too discouraged, let me tell you how inspired I was after attending the 2015 Student Innovation Expo on June 6, 2015 in the XL Center in Hartford, CT. Hosted by Skills21 at EDUCATION CONNECTION and emceed by the charismatic Matt Mervis, over 1,000 students gathered to showcase their innovative ideas and solutions in the fields of technology and business, science and math, public health, digital arts and sciences, medical science and technology. If you are interested in recruiting the best and brightest in your future work force, this is the place to be! The place was hopping with talent.
Among the many impressive winners at this event was the team from Danbury High School that took first place in the 2015 .
These five motivated and brilliant students from Danbury High School (shown in photo above along with their mentor/sponsor) took the top prize in the Sikorsky STEM Challenge competition this year. They wow’ed the judges with their outstanding presentation and engineering solutions to a real-world problem.
This was the fourth year for the Sikorsky STEM Challenge, and my second time serving as a judge. The challenge provides high school students with the opportunity to partner with an Engineering mentor from Sikorsky, and solve an engineering design problem applying the lessons of the classroom to the technical problems that are being faced in their mission.
After reading over , my head was spinning with details of the mission, the assumptions, and the technical and logistical factors that had to be taken into consideration when developing the engineering solution. They were challenged to figure out how to deliver potable drinking water to a drought-stricken community via a WWII Corsair aircraft. (watch this YouTube video to find out why the Corsair was called “whistling death”)
On top of that, each finalist team had to present their solution to a judging panel of “experts.” And, if the engineering challenging wasn’t daunting enough, they were also expected to speak in public!
What I loved about their presentation
The first thing I noticed about the Danbury High School team was how relaxed they appeared. I don’t mean to say that they were overly casual, but each of the five young men had a calm, confident “comfortable in your own skin” kind of presence. One of the young men immediately caught my eye. He was wearing an orange bow tie and matching sneakers. He took a risk wearing such a vibrant and playful outfit to an otherwise conservative world of engineering. But his talent and confidence prevailed. He turned out to be a very strong opening and closing speaker.
Not being an engineer myself, I couldn’t really rate them on their engineering solution. But they had passed the preliminary rounds which were carefully scrutinized by a team of expert engineers at Sikorsky Aircraft, and they made it to the finals. Their engineering solution and content had to be accurate enough for them to be considered as a finalist.
Placed on the platform with the five teenagers was a small white board on an easel. On display was a rudimentary drawing of the Corsair aircraft. (see the photograph below that was snapped from the judges table. I caught them at a particularly serious moment. They were listening to the judges questions very intently).
With this handy-dandy visual aid, they were able to explain what happened when they placed the water on board the aircraft, and what would happen if the wind changed, and what would happen if there was low visibility, etc. This low-tech visual aid did more than any of the fancy PowerPoint slides or video simulations presented in this competition. It was fun, memorable, engaging, easy to follow along, and intriguing.
And it was risky. The Danbury High School team told me after they won their award that they were advised, by an earlier set of judges in the semi-finals, to remove the white board prop from their presentation. The judge who made that recommendation told the team that he thought it was too silly. But the team decided to leave it in the final presentation.
I applaud their courage and conviction.
Innovation needs room to grow
“Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth. So let’s all go exploring.” –Dr. Edith Widder
When we are trying to encourage innovation in our companies, schools, communities, countries, we need to allow for freedom of expression. We need to encourage risk taking and allow it. And, we must not frown on failure. We must make room for the innovators. They may not look like or think like us. What did Einstein once say? Something like…the kind of thinking that created the problem is not the kind of thinking that is needed to solve the problem?
The future is bright indeed
So if you want to feel better about the future, support our youth. Don’t listen to the news. Instead, attend one of the many student innovation expos held around the country. Attend a FIRST robotics fare. Volunteer in a local high school. Mentor a youth. Participate in a job shadow day. Hire a high school intern.
It is all of our jobs to encourage, mentor, and nurture curiosity in young people. Their passion for learning and problem solving will lead to our future competitive edge.