STEM initiatives drive economic development in the state

    The accelerating exodus of baby boomers from the skilled workforce and the increased use of technology in all industries has heightened awareness of the critical need for a competent and well-rounded employee pool in Wisconsin.

    While STEM education has been a part of the development conversation for a while, stakeholders in Wisconsin want to formalize the plan and position Wisconsin to take advantage of the significant economic opportunities that will result.

    “Pockets of extreme excellence”

    Money for a state STEM initiative, according to Merkel, was allotted in the current biennial budget for Wisconsin, but so far the plan hasn’t gained any traction.

    “I would characterize Wisconsin as having pockets of extreme excellence in STEM Education throughout the state,” said Rich Merkel, executive director of STEMForward, a southeastern Wisconsin-based organization that provides and promotes educational outreach programs in the STEM industry. “Our goal is to establish a statewide STEM initiative focused on common goals and economic development in the state.”

    According to Merkel, several well-designed efforts and formal organizations, including FIRST Robotics and Project Lead the Way, have an excellent presence in Wisconsin.
    “A formalized plan, however, will help all parties acknowledge the importance of STEM and the importance of integrating business and education into the process to work toward a common goal for economic development,” Merkel said.

    Hands-on learning, critical thinking

    Project Lead The Way Wisconsin, the state affiliate of the Indianapolis-based national organization, has developed a school curriculum centered on real-world STEM occupations.

    “Students who take part in any of the Project Lead The Way curriculum programs experience hands-on learning in math, science and technology that is embedded into the course design,” said Steve Salter, Milwaukee School of Engineering staff member and director of Project Lead the Way Wisconsin. “The curriculum is designed to make the students think critically, be actively engaged, and apply knowledge to real-life situations.”

    Since its inception, Project Lead The Way Wisconsin has established its two high school curriculums, Pathway to Engineering and Biomedical Science, at more than 175 High Schools around the state. The organization has also established its Middle School Gateway to Technology curriculum at 145 schools in Wisconsin and will launch a new elementary school program in the fall of 2014.

    “We’ve learned that kids develop interests very early on in life,” Merkel said. “Students who don’t like traditional worksheet mathematical problems can be exposed to the same problems in the STEM curriculum, but in an interactive, problem-solving way. We can, perhaps, pique his or her interest and motivate that young person to continue to seek out additional STEM opportunities, either through school or extra curricular (activities).”

    Fun (and learning) with robots

    One popular activity in Wisconsin is competitive robotics competitions.
    Programs like VEX Robotics and FIRST Robotics (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) allow teams of children in first through twelfth grade to form teams to compete in a variety of robotic challenges at the regional, national and international levels.

    “Teams generally have six to eight weeks to construct robots to address a given challenge,” said Maggie Peterman, director of FIRST Wisconsin.

    “Our organization is different in that anybody can form a team,” she said. “There’s no school affiliation needed, and we encourage teachers, parents and business leaders to get involved with the program as leaders and mentors.”

    The FIRST Robotics program requires teams to engage the business community in their challenges, Peterman said.

    “Challenges, particularly at the high school level, generally cannot be solved by the students alone,” Peterman said. “They need to engage with engineers, electricians and professionals in those careers to mentor the teams through the challenges.”
    Jeff Fenstermaker, MR Engineering Integration manager at GE Healthcare, in Waukesha has been a mentor for a Brookfield-based FIRST Robotics high school team for five years.

    “It’s a great opportunity to give real-life experiences to high school students,” he said. “The education system is very much book-focused. Sometimes it takes students until they graduate from college to actually apply concepts they learned in high school. In today’s job market that can be a detriment. Programs like FIRST Robotics help energize students to apply their skills sooner.”

    Nick Luther is a design engineer at Plexus Engineering Solutions, a division of Plexus Corporation in Appleton. Plexus has been the major company sponsor for the Appleton-area FIRST Robotics team since 1993.

    “Plexus recently hired our first FIRST Robotics alum,” Luther said. “It was a great experience to see the process come full-circle. As a company, we’re looking for confidence and a well-rounded technical competency. I can see how programs like FIRST Robotics can help students achieve those skills.”

    STEM-style teaching provides opportunities for students to think critically, answer open-ended questions and experience problem-based learning similar to the real world.
    “By providing an introduction to STEM courses and skills, we allow students to develop a level of comfort and a skilled competency that many employers, across all industries, are looking for,” Merkel said.

    Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio and several other states have established state-driven STEM organizations with support from all stakeholders including government.

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