WASHINGTON – Carolyn Williams brought engineering students from St. Cloud State University to the nation’s capital this weekend for one reason:
To make them feel like rock stars.
The eight St. Cloud students who staffed one of nearly 700 booths at the USA Science and Engineering Festival became featured players in one of the nation’s biggest promotions of geekdom.
“Engineering is what has made our world change,” said Williams, a dean in charge of her school’s science, technology, engineering and math initiatives, known as STEM. “When students see others like them in these roles, that makes all the difference in the world.”
The world is where the United States is losing its scientific and engineering edge, said festival founder Larry Bock.
“You are what you celebrate,” he explained. “In the U.S. we celebrate pro athletes, pop stars and Hollywood actors. We don’t celebrate scientists and engineers.”
With the help of major corporations, including Maplewood-based 3M, and major educational institutions like St. Cloud State and the University of Minnesota, Bock aims for an indispensable cultural shift that will “generate a lot of wannabe” STEM students.
“Unless we get the next generation excited about science and engineering,” he said, “we will have outsourced innovation.”
Convincing kids to dream of being super-scientists and exceptional engineers instead of sports stars or Hollywood heartthrobs is a herculean task.
“You have to have passion because the courses are hard,” said Dee Yang, a 21-year-old biomedical sciences major from St. Paul.
Tashiana Osborne, 22, also from the metro area, is working on a double major in hydrology and meteorology. She sometimes feels as if she sees science and engineering differently than many of her peers.
“I’ve grown to idolize scientists,” she said. “These are my celebrities.”
To make more young people feels that way, 3M created a Visiting Wizards program that sends employees into communities to give hands-on demonstrations to students. Some wizards worked their magic at the 3M booth at the D.C. festival. The company used multicolored lasers and mirrors in hopes of wowing youngsters.
“We need to develop a pipeline before college,” said Meredith Crosby, who directs strategic initiatives at 3Mgives, the corporation’s philanthropic arm. “We gave $25 million to education with a focus on STEM in 2013.”
The company has a vested interest: It hires thousands of scientists and engineers. Crosby summed up 3M’s goal for a U.S. culture shift: It wants an educational system where “robotics competition is to science class what football is to gym class.”
At St. Cloud State, Williams pitches high starting salaries to attract and keep STEM students. Most of her charges at the USA Science and Engineering Festival planned to spend some time in the “career pavilion,” where they could get a taste of the good-paying jobs they might eventually land. Last year’s graduates landed jobs that started around $70,000 per year, Williams said.
The trade-off for financial security is academic rigor that many U.S. students choose to avoid. Each year, South Korea graduates more engineers than the United States, Bock said. Studies show that one in four South Korean college students major in engineering. In the U.S., the figure is one in 20.
“You can get easily discouraged,” said Williams, who uses a “buddy system” that pairs freshmen with upperclassmen and groups like Society of Women Engineers to help with retention.
Integrating more science and math into public education beginning in kindergarten makes a big difference, many experts believe. But so does finding a link to pop culture, said University of Minnesota physics professor Jim Kakalios.
Kakalios appeared at the D.C. festival for the third time. He presented his “Physics of Superheroes” demonstration that links comic book characters to nature’s physical laws. Kakalios has used the concept in college classes and books he’s written.
“I’ve been doing this for over 10 years,” Kakalios said in an interview before he made presentations to hundreds of local high school students brought to the festival as part of their day’s study. “My experience has been that Americans are not anti-intellectual. They are anti-snobbery.”
With that in mind, former professional basketball players were slated to use drills with selected students to demonstrate the science of the sport at the festival, while a quadruple amputee who lost his limbs while serving in the Army was scheduled to discuss his determination and also the development of the artificial limbs that let him reclaim his life.
Practical examples are essential, Kakalios said, because American culture will not change until people credit the improvements in their lives to the innovations that allowed them.
“A handful of scientists in the 1920s and 1930s created quantum mechanics,” he said. “A generation later, a handful of scientists used that knowledge to develop lasers. A generation later, a handful of scientists used that knowledge to develop laptops and iPhones.
“So many things built into our lives come from the true superheroes of science.”