On 24 December 1968, I was glued to the television watching the transmission of the Apollo 8 astronauts as they orbited the moon. Earlier that day, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders had fired up their service propulsion system engine, placing them and their spacecraft into lunar orbit and becoming the first humans to visit another planet. Their pioneering flight paved the way for the Apollo 11 lunar landing seven months later.
As a 9-year-old, I was transfixed by the excitement and wonder of it all. I just couldn’t believe that humans were flying around the moon. It was a defining moment for me, and I soon became immersed in all things “space”—a passion that remains today. It also changed my worldview, as I pondered how something so amazing could be accomplished. I wanted to learn how to do that too, and it is because of the Apollo program that I became an engineer and went on to have a rewarding career in the aerospace industry.
I was not the only one from that era to be influenced by the program. There was a dramatic increase in the number of students pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering, or math—especially in the United States. Fast-forward 50 years and today we are surrounded by incredible scientific and technological innovations that have improved our lives.
Many challenges still confront us, and it will take a diverse, technically literate talent pool to address them. Such skills also will be critical for individuals to succeed in an information-driven and highly technological society. Without a driver like Apollo, what influencers will inspire the future technological innovators, especially those students from underrepresented groups or those attending schools that lack resources?
Without access to STEM-based resources, such students won’t see careers in engineering and technology as relevant to their future. And that would be a shame and a lost opportunity. As engineers and technical professionals, we belong to IEEE because our goal is Advancing Technology for Humanity. Our work improves lives.
We can change lives by inspiring the next generation of engineers and technology professionals needed to address the challenges of the future. As a professional IEEE staff member working in the Educational Activities department, I have had the wonderful opportunity to do just that by helping to create an important new program: TryEngineering Together.
Developed in partnership with Cricket Media, TryEngineering Together is an e-mentoring platform that connects industry professionals with students in third, fourth, and fifth grades.
The program is designed to be an influencer that today’s kids are missing. The target age group is critical, as recent research has demonstrated that as students reach the fourth grade, more than a third have lost interest in STEM subjects. By the eighth grade, nearly half have lost interest.
The power of TryEngineering Together is derived from the one-on-one mentoring relationship between the student and the technical professional. Using the specially designed curriculum—which is complemented by in-classroom hands-on activities conducted by the teacher—the student and mentor explore articles on different technical topics and correspond with each other about them. Mentors ask the students questions and answer their queries.
The mentoring experience takes only about three to four hours per month. The platform enables mentors to access it 24/7 from their home or office, or even while on vacation.
For the student, a direct connection and relationship with someone who works in a STEM field helps them learn about technical awareness and literacy. Those relationships reinforce the notion that students might one day see themselves working in a STEM field. That personal interaction serves as inspiration in the way that Apollo inspired me.
When IEEE began piloting the program in January, I was matched with an inquisitive student who was interested in robotics. Our exchanges were fun and informative. I was able to see the impact mentoring can have on a student.
After discussing the curriculum work, the student asked me how to waterproof an underwater robot. He was working on such a project for a science fair. Robotics, especially underwater versions, are out of my aerospace field. Luckily, like all IEEE members, I have a great network and was able to provide the student with some guidance. I take no credit for the student winning an award for his project, but I was proud to have played a small part.
TryEngineering Together is one of the most rewarding projects I have ever been involved with, and that includes my experiences in aerospace.
I’m excited about the potential impact we can have. We need your help. We need corporate support to adopt more classrooms so we can reach more students.
Do you want to make a difference and change a child’s life? Do you want to help shape the next generation of STEM innovators? Whether you are an engineer, a technical professional, or a STEM enthusiast, consider asking your employer to help sponsor TryEngineering Together.
Join us in the quest to inspire the next generation.
IEEE Member Burt Dicht is the director of IEEE student and academic educational programs.