September/October 2013
Final Say

Investing in future engineers

By Ray Almgren

Today's educators are challenged with inspiring students to think critically, explore new concepts, and innovate. Empowering students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is essential to developing the next generation of innovators who will solve problems and make a significant impact on society and the future economy. The demand for skilled, knowledgeable workers in science and engineering is undeniable. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports that job opportunities in STEM fields are expected to grow significantly over the next five years, growing twice as fast as non-STEM industries. In spite of this growing need, today's students are losing interest in these disciplines and pursuing other career choices. Furthermore, university students who do obtain engineering degrees are experiencing a major disconnect between the concepts they have learned in their studies and the practical applications to real-world problems they face in the workforce. So how do we make a lasting impression on young students and keep them engaged throughout the education continuum?

Adopting hands-on learning experiences

Starting at an early age, children have a natural inclination to learn, discover, tinker, and build. Hands-on learning experiences make it possible for students to figure out how systems work and pique their initial curiosity in engineering. Unfortunately, there is a lack of experimentation and project-based learning in today's education system, as the math and science curriculum primarily focuses on teaching complex theories, concepts, and formulas from textbooks. Though understanding these fundamentals is vital to a well-rounded engineering education, relating them to real-world applications is critical to bring these concepts to life. At National Instruments (NI), we encourage educators to incorporate industry-grade technologies into their labs and classrooms to enable students to get their hands dirty and "do engineering." Project-based learning experiences not only give students a comprehensive understanding of the concepts they are taught, but also allow students to grow proficient and skilled using the same tools as professional engineers and scientists.

For years we have aligned our academic initiatives and community outreach efforts with organizations that promote STEM education, such as For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST). Independent research from Brandeis University found that 89 percent of students in FIRST attend college and 55 percent pursue degrees in STEM fields. As a long-time partner with FIRST, NI provides funds and technologies that enable students to design and build real robotics systems. It is impressive how quickly students in FIRST grasp robotics concepts and how proficiently they program their robots using our tools and technology. These creative, driven students are the engineers and scientists of tomorrow, so it is crucial that we continue investing in these initiatives.

Providing dedicated role models

Providing students with dedicated role models in STEM is vital to retaining their interest. According to the Lemelson Center at MIT, one of the main reasons students lack interest in STEM education is because they simply do not know enough STEM professionals and do not understand what they do. It is easy for children to understand what a professional athlete or musician does for a living, but visualizing a professional engineer or scientist is much more abstract. Eric Schwarz, executive chairman of US2020, a nationwide initiative to grow the number of STEM mentors, recently said, "Children who grow up with a scientist or an engineer as a role model find avenues to unlock natural curiosity. Children who do not have access to mentors, particularly in the STEM subjects, do not have the same opportunities, allowing potential to go untapped." I am proud to say that more than 100 National Instruments employees mentor FIRST robotics programs each season and make a huge difference in the community and these students' lives.

By incorporating project-based learning into the education system and encouraging people to invest their time to facilitate the learning process, future engineers and scientists will be armed with the tools and skills needed to solve tomorrow's problems and discover exciting new innovations. Come join us and others to stimulate the engineers of the future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

final1Ray Almgren, vice president of marketing at National Instruments, leads teams responsible for marketing the corporate brand, NI LabVIEW, and educational products. Almgren evangelizes the importance of STEM education as chairman of the board of FIRST in Texas and member of the National FIRST executive advisory board.