Building enough engineers to meet future demand must start early, experts say

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 4 2012 11:35 p.m. MST

Students guide a robot they made and programmed at the 2012 VEX Robotics Competition World Championship.

Courtesy of Innovation First

Joshua Peterson's home is east of the small Utah town of Monticello, among the pinto bean farms that stretch toward the Colorado border. Thanks to an educational hobby — robotics — the lanky 18-year-old has already seen a bit of the world, though, and the skills he's learning are likely to take him much further.

A robotics competition is like a sports event, Peterson said, but for brains instead of bodies. Working with a robot his team designed, built and programmed as it overwhelms other robots at competitions in California or Florida is as exciting as any hard-fought sports matchup, he said.

Raptor Robotics, the three-member team he leads, builds working robots that look like the product of a steroid-enhanced Erector Set. The robots fend off competitor robots in the "robot ring" while chasing balls into goal receptacles, hanging rings on hooks, dumping beanbags into troughs or whatever challenge is specified in competition rules.

The Raptor team learned and used many engineering concepts while building robots, and that effort is likely to pay off well. Nurturing interest in engineering in high school, and even earlier, is critical to preparing students to succeed in collegiate engineering programs, a 2011 report by Intel Corporation said. Currently, about half of students who major in engineering drop the program during their freshman year of college, according to National Science Foundation data.

It's important to graduate engineers, because the U.S. needs them to develop energy sources, replace aging infrastructure, deal with air and water pollution and create new medical technologies. However, 88 percent of employers surveyed in a new poll said they had difficulty finding enough engineers to hire, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

The engineer's world

Kurt Becker is an engineering education professor in Utah State University's College of Engineering. Becker notes that many elementary school students think an engineer's job is to drive trains. Older students tend to lump engineers with auto mechanics, he said. Few students know what engineers really do: apply principles of science and mathematics to find solutions to technical problems and human needs.

Engineers build rockets, skyscrapers, roads, dams and bridges. They find ways to clean up water and air pollution, design machinery, create computer hardware and software, and develop life-saving medical equipment.

The job outlook for engineers varies depending on engineering discipline. The U.S. Department of Labor forecasts that the need for mechanical, electrical and electronics engineers in the United States will be below national job-growth averages through 2020 because the recent recession caused job losses in those areas, and the market is still recovering. There is booming growth in the fields of civil, environmental and biomedical engineering, though.

Despite strong job demand and good salaries for engineers — an average of more than $75,000 per year — few high school students think about being engineers. Intel's survey found that American high school students' general lack of familiarity with the engineering profession keeps them from considering engineering careers and preparing themselves to succeed in collegiate engineering programs.

Robotics programs are recommended by the Intel study as a way of helping students integrate math and science concepts in practical ways. And for the Raptor Robotics team, it's working. Peterson said he applied trigonometric equations and the Pythagorean theorem to figure out how far and at what angle a robot arm needed to stick out so that it could best perform its tasks. And he used "Y"-intercept geometry to control motor speed.

"A lot of the stuff I learn in school helps me in robotics," Peterson said. And, the converse is true. Peterson finds that he understands math equations better if he programs them on his computer, using skills he developed through robotics experience.

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