Museum’s Engineering Days Fuel Interest in STEM Careers

Rafael Gonzalez works the robotic arm Sparky II to snatch a lollypop

Boredom never stood a chance of edging its way into the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Engineering Days. The program captivated 150 Middle School students with hands-on activities that showed them how they, too, could one day become problem solvers.

They were shown how engineers filter yucky water so it becomes drinkable, thanks in part to the chlorine that kills “bad bugs.”

They learned why flushing kitty litter down the toilet is a no-no.

They used computers to strategically place trusses on a bridge so a delivery truck could reliably drive over it.

They saw how vaporized silicon absorbs oil spills and keeps the water pure.

They learned how artificial hands are churned out from a 3D printer using the same plastic LEGO blocks are made from.

And they tore down computers to see and touch the power supply, motherboard, fan and heat sync that helps keep it cool.

Tips for Students Interested in STEM Careers

  • If a topic/career interests you, either research on your own or ask a teacher to help you find local groups/activities/events/school clubs that you can attend/do to give you more hands-on experience in that field.
  • Try several different things – you don’t have to settle on just one topic. Experiment to see what you like or what is the most fun. It’s better to have a career where you love to go to work each day!
  • Focus on math skills. You don’t have to get all A’s. Solid B’s are what a lot of engineers received in college.
  • If your grades are C’s or lower, don’t give up – work harder at increasing them. You learn a lot more when you have to struggle to achieve something.

SOURCE: Godwin Heights Middle School sixth-grade teacher Dawn Sobleskey

For Antonio Aruizu, peering inside a hard drive was akin to a Disneyland of electronic circuitry.

“I never thought there was all this in there,” an enthused Antonio said.

Key to Engineering Days was mining a rich vein of curiosity for the students.

Keep on Keeping on

“Stick with Math. Stick with your Science,” said Mike TenBrock, a project manager for the Kent County Road Commission who explained how road asphalt is made. “Don’t give up, even if it seems hard.”

It was in some of these “hard things” like science where students learned a lot.

Sonovia White was absorbed in thought when she looked at a life-size model of one drop of water from the Grand River that showed a close-range rendering of 19 impurities, or as Kevin Lynch likes to call them, “free swimmers.”

Lynch, an operator at the city of Wyoming’s Clean Water Plant, said those tiny swimmers include water fleas, fresh water algae and stomach-turning hydra that comes complete with a tubular body and a ring of tentacles around its mouth.

Not a pretty sight. Such bugs can make a person sick with water-borne diseases such as cholera.

“Yuck,” Sonovia said. “We don’t actually drink that stuff?”

Lynch assured her the water goes through a thorough filtration process before it comes out of her faucet.

Accordingly, Lynch added, items like pencils, pens, ear swabs and kitty litter don’t dissolve after they’re flushed down the toilet, creating a snowball effect that clogs the plant’s pumps.

“You should never flush anything in the toilet except toilet paper and waste,” agreed Jamya Sanders. “I usually do that.”

Students were also introduced to computer software that required them to figure out where to place the right amount of trusses on a bridge. Those who succeeded watched a delivery truck speed over their structures.

“It makes me feel good because I’ve accomplished something,” said Hayley Hill as her virtual truck chugged along.

Even though she built trusses on a computer, Briayja White couldn’t help feeling that it amounted to a tangible experience.

“It’s cool to see and feel how they make bridges,” she said.

Casting New Career Ideas

Engineering Days casts new potential for young people.

“They see other career possibilities,” said sixth-grade teacher Dawn Sobleskey. “They see that this is do-able. It gets them interested in something else by experiencing it. It opens another door.”

It’s a door that needs to be opened wider.

STEM-careers are in Demand

According to the National Math and Science Initiative, science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related (STEM) jobs over the next 10 years will outpace non-STEM jobs significantly, growing 17 percent compared to 9.8 percent for non-STEM jobs.

The heavy lifting doesn’t stop there. Georgia Tech researcher Barbara Ericson in 2013 analyzed which students took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science, and which did not. Ericson found that in three states no women took it, in eight states no Hispanics did, and in 11 states no African Americans did.

Moreover, the Associated Press reported in 2011 that the percentage of African-Americans earning STEM degrees has fallen during the last decade. While they make up 12 percent of the U.S. population and 11 percent of all students beyond high school, they received only seven percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, four percent of master’s degrees and two percent of Ph.D.s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (from 2009).

That’s a trend middle school principal Jeff Johnson would like changed.

“We want to see the students see all the career paths available to them,” he said.

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