ThomasNet, publisher of IMT Career Journal, on April 1 launched the ThomasNet North American Manufacturing Scholarship program to actively help the manufacturing sector close the STEM skills gap, providing up to 30 scholarships of $1,000 each to high-achieving students pursue their dreams in engineering, skilled trades, and supply chain management/business operations. Students have until July 1 to apply.
In conjunction with the new scholarship from ThomasNet, IMT Career Journal’s Leadership Q&A Series speaks with leaders in both academia and industry about pertinent issues affecting STEM education and workforce development. Here, we sought Greg Pearson, senior program officer at the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), for his insights into STEM education and careers.
Pearson is well aware of the complicated nature of the issues that are creating the manufacturing talent shortage. At NAE, he develops and manages new areas of activity related to K-12 engineering education, technological literacy, and the public’s understanding of engineering.
In this installment of the IMT Career Journal Leadership Q&A Series, Pearson talks about the importance of elevating public awareness and interest in STEM, developing messaging about STEM’s role in improving the human condition, and engaging students at younger ages to develop “engineering habits of mind” early in life.
IMT Career Journal: In recent years, businesses across the industrial sector have been warning of a STEM skills gap, which is now a big issue. Why is there such a mismatch between open jobs and skilled workers?
Pearson: The skills gap is not a simple or straightforward issue, in part because not everyone means the same thing when they say it. It’s almost certainly the case that there are shortages of skilled workers for certain types of jobs in certain industries, but it varies by sector and by geography.
IMT Career Journal: We often hear that the U.S. is trailing other countries in graduating new STEM talent. How can we help strengthen and expand the pipeline of American graduates in STEM disciplines?
Pearson: Most people agree that the United States can and should do a better job of teaching the subjects of mathematics and science to our K-12 students. Like just about everything else in U.S. education, this is not a simple matter, but well-prepared, well-paid, and well-regarded teachers are probably the linchpin for success.
The new common core mathematics standards and soon-to-be-released Next Generation Science Standards have the potential to support more high-quality and more coherent teaching in both subjects. The growing presence of engineering in K-12 schools has the potential to support interest and achievement in math and science, as well as boost awareness and interest in engineering itself.
IMT Career Journal: One of the challenges that U.S. engineering seems to be facing is a branding problem — a lack of public awareness about what engineering is and what engineers do. What steps can be taken to make the general public relate better to educational and career pursuits in STEM fields?
Pearson: There is no simple solution here, either, but consistently exposing the public to creatively developed, positive messaging about the role of engineering — and STEM in general — in improving the human condition will have an impact over time. Various groups, including NAE, have been working on this issue for some time.
See, for example, [NAE’s] Engineering Messages.org. This site was designed as a toolkit, or resource, to help the engineering community — engineering schools, engineering professional societies, technically focused industry, science and technology centers — communicate more effectively with various public audiences. In other words, the site is not really meant to be of use or particular interest to kids, parents, or teachers, but it will help those in engineering who talk to these audiences do so more effectively. We also have a Facebook page, www.facebook.com/engineersctc.
IMT Career Journal: K-12 education has received a lot of attention lately as a means to foster the nation’s future STEM workforce. What are key reasons for introducing engineering and science in early education?
Pearson: Our brains are most open to learning new things at younger ages, and developing good learning habits is something best practiced over many years. This is true for language, mathematics, art, science, and certainly engineering. Elementary teachers have a lot more flexibility — though not as much as they would like, I’m sure — than their middle and high school colleagues to draw connections for their students among different subjects and to engage their students in hands-on, group activities. Engineering design projects, when done well, are a great fit for elementary school students.
More broadly, developing “engineering habits of mind” early on in kids, which include creativity and optimism when faced with problems, a willingness to fail and learn from it, and an understanding of the pervasiveness of systems in our lives, will be valuable for most people, whether they become engineers or not.
IMT Career Journal: There are increasingly more initiatives and programs that focus on offering teens real-world, hands-on engineering experiences and interaction with engineers. Are more robotics programs and science competitions helpful in engaging youth?
Pearson: Robotics competitions and other problem-solving-based activities, whether alongside or independent of classroom learning, are extremely valuable, particularly as tools to develop interest and engagement. Efforts that try to connect classroom learning with informal or out-of-school activities may be particularly promising for supporting development of student interest.
IMT Career Journal: What words of advice do you have for the younger generations of students looking to enter engineering and other STEM fields?
Pearson: Try to learn something about what engineers do and what impact engineering can have on our day-to-day lives. Find a younger engineer or engineering student and ask why he or she chose to do what they do, what is fun and rewarding about engineering, and what preparation and work they needed to do to get where they are.
Read additional IMT Career Journal Leadership Q&A Series interviews: