MAKING STEM FOR K-12 MORE ACCESSIBLE VIA MENTORSHIP AND CREATIVE ENGAGEMENT
By Dr. James Truchard
The National Academy of Engineering recently published the 14 Engineering Grand Challenges, authored by a select group of our country’s most esteemed scientific and engineering minds. The engineering grand challenges lay out the 14 most important and significant issues our world faces. By taking on society’s most pressing problems, engineers will improve quality of life throughout the world while also improving economic prosperity and stability. I often refer to these issues not only to highlight the need for more corporate and government funding and research and development in these areas, but more importantly, because students can use this list of challenges to easily identify a cause that they can get involved with and positively impact.
In order to have any chance of finding solutions to these complex problems, we must first enhance student interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Of the developed nations, children in the U.S. perform in the bottom half on standardized math and science tests and show little interest in pursuing careers in science and engineering. Their waning interest, combined with the impending retirement of the scientists and engineers of the Space Race era, will make it difficult for companies to produce necessary research and develop cutting-edge products here in the United States. In order for the U.S. and Texas to maintain their competitive edge, we must foster the growth of domestic talent by encouraging young people to explore STEM.
We know what the problem is. Students today find STEM irrelevant, difficult, and just plain boring. We’re raising a generation of digital natives who don’t know a world without Google, prefer texting to calling, and find email too slow. Today’s students desire to see the immediate impact of all things they do. We acknowledge that this mentality spills over into their educational environment as well. It is our responsibility to stop talking about the problem and start helping change student attitudes regarding STEM. The means by which we introduce and teach STEM must be more “hands-on.” Even in the university setting, engineering students are too often drilled with math courses that seem irrelevant to them, which leads many freshmen to choose another major.
At National Instruments (NI), we are deeply committed to working with the leading programs in Texas and the U.S. that are directly addressing the pipeline of young people entering the technical workforce. For the past 10 years, NI has been developing products specifically designed to inspire students and help them learn science and engineering through a hands-on approach. NI co-developed, with LEGO, the software for LEGO MINDSTORMS. LEGO MINDSTORMS gives students the tools to design, build, and program robots that can perform a set of tasks, all decided by the student. The software is based on our industry standard NI LabVIEW graphical programming software and is touching the lives of millions of students all over the world. Students are able to combine computers, software programming, logic, and physical construction in a manner that is not possible with any other youth product.
LEGO MINDSTORMS is the key technology used in FIRST LEGO League, an after school competition for elementary and middle school students, which has become a favorite here in Texas. The competition is run by FIRST, (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and is the most popular robotics competition in the U.S. FIRST competitions challenge students with difficult problems that they must solve using math and science skills, while also allowing them to develop leadership skills and learn the importance of teamwork. NI is a major supporter of FIRST along with many other great Texas companies such as Intel, Texas Instruments, Lockheed Martin, and Time Warner Cable. I encourage more companies to get involved not only by offering financial support, but also by asking your engineers to become mentors for the middle and high school FIRST teams in your community.
If we are truly intent on re-chartering the course of education in this country, there is another group that needs our focus just as much as our youth: teachers. Teacher preparation is an extremely important element of developing a talented high-tech workforce. We are very fortunate here in Texas to have the UTeach program, started in the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas. UTeach prepares math, science, and engineering majors to also be certified high school teachers without extending the amount of time needed to attain their bachelor’s degree. UTeach is now being offered in 22 universities in 17 states and has been cited in both the America COMPETES Act and President Obama’s recent State of the Union address. UTeach is creating the nation’s most qualified math and science teachers, and it is imperative that more universities here in Texas offer UTeach programs. NI’s co-founder, Jeff Kodosky, worked closely with UTeach founder and visionary Mary Ann Rankin, Dean of the College of Natural Sciences at UT Austin, to get this program off the ground. Jeff and NI are proud to be active supporters of this critical program. I also applaud the major support of ExxonMobil that has made the replication of UTeach possible across our state and the U.S.
While National Instruments and its partners create products and programs designed to prepare teachers and engage students to bring them into the world of STEM, these products and programs cannot have their full potential unlocked without respective elements of curriculum. In order to allow our STEM teachers to share how they are using these elements of curriculum and what they are teaching, National Instruments has created K12Lab. K12Lab is a resource for teachers to share creative ways to engage students in STEM coursework. Now that more and more teachers are preparing themselves for the challenge of gaining and keeping students engaged in STEM, they need a place where they can share their experiences, their lessons plans, and their inspiring stories.
The children of today will be responsible for solving the engineering grand challenges. Industry, parents, and policy-makers can’t do it alone—it takes engaging products that allow them to “do engineering” to build the confidence that they can tackle tough problems. Additionally, we need the help of the teachers that touch our students’ lives for five out of seven days a week. Together, we can inspire the students of today to become the innovators of tomorrow.
Dr. James Truchard is the co-founder and current president and CEO of National Instruments. Texas Governor Rick Perry appointed Truchard to the state’s Advisory Council on the Digital Economy and invited Truchard to chair the Texas Science, Technology, and Math Industry Advisory Council, which seeks to reverse the declining interest of young people in technical careers.