Building Appreciation for STEM Among Today’s Students

Engineers can spark interest by sharing stories about what they do

9 November 2016

I always found being an engineer to be incredibly rewarding. As a design engineer, I had opportunities to create something out of nothing. And having worked in aerospace, the height of that satisfaction was seeing an aircraft I helped design fly for the first time. Just as rewarding is inspiring kids to choose engineering as a career.

Over the course of my professional life, I have met with students of all ages to discuss the wonders and rewards of a career in engineering, as well as share my passion for aerospace. In July, for example, I spoke at the NAACP’s Stepping Into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) program in Metuchen, N.J. The two-week summer camp brought in speakers from various fields to teach high school students about STEM career paths.

SPARKING INTEREST

I spent three hours with the students talking about the Northrop YF-23, a stealth fighter aircraft designed for the U.S. Air Force, and the contributions I made to its design. I showed them my engineering drawings, and provided them with a snapshot of what’s going on in the aerospace industry and some predictions for its future. I also showed a video of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket landing on a drone ship—which the students especially enjoyed.

Then I switched to the topic of what engineers do and the many different types of engineers there are, as well as how to enter the field. The campers had a lot of questions about my presentation—which is a highlight for me when I give these talks. They asked me how much math they need to know to be an engineer, and how much money engineers make. They get right to the heart of the matter.

They then participated in a hands-on exercise that taught them the principles of rocket flight. Such activities are easy to do and generate a lot of excitement. Some of the students built and launched so-called Alka-Seltzer rockets, which are constructed with the effervescent antacid plus pieces of card-stock paper, a conical drinking cup, tape, and a 35mm film canister. One half of an Alka-Seltzer tablet is placed into the film canister, a teaspoon of water is added and the canister is closed with the cap. The water makes the tablet’s ingredients of sodium bicarbonate and citric acid react, producing carbon dioxide. The gas builds up enough pressure to overcome the cap’s seal and propels the rocket into the air. I brought NASA decals and other materials so the students could decorate their rockets.

READY FOR TAKEOFF

With the rockets constructed, we all moved outside for launch testing. It’s always fun to see the excitement in the students’ eyes as the rockets rise into the air. The kids were amazed how high the rockets traveled, as several reached nearly 8 meters.

I left the campers with instructions on how to build different types of rockets (with a strict warning not to launch them indoors).

These types of STEM programs happen year-round. I encourage IEEE members to explore opportunities to visit schools and participate in similar STEM programs. In the comments section below, feel free to leave me questions or share what you do to inspire the next generation of engineers.

IEEE Member Burt Dicht is the director of IEEE Educational Activities’ University Programs, where he is responsible for accreditation activities and developing resources for faculty and students. He began his career in the aerospace industry in 1982, and was lead engineer for Northrop Grumman and Rockwell Space Transportation Systems Division, both in California.

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