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

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

"It does give homework a more real work application," he said. "It's all homework, though."

Side benefits

Along the way, Peterson, 18, has learned about problem-solving, engineering design and computer programming skills. His robotics experience has also shaped his career dreams: He wants to be a computer programmer in the field of robotics engineering.

Some benefits of Peterson's robotics experience won't show up on his transcript or ACT score, but will likely help him succeed in college engineering classes, and in the job world. Building a capable robot from a pile of spare parts has taught Peterson and his teammates to solve problems, experiment and think like engineers.

"We'll sketch out ideas, try to figure things out and build prototypes," Peterson said. "About 90 percent of them don't work at all, but we keep looking around — it takes awhile. Eventually, you'll get there and find the solution."

Team members have to learn to work together smoothly, and forgive each other for mistakes, Peterson said. At competitions, they compete with teams who might be assigned to collaborate with them at later stages of the competition, so self-control and strong interpersonal skills are essential.

The biggest benefit Peterson has seen is a change in his attitude about working through difficult tasks, whether in robotics design or schoolwork.

"I know that if I'm patient, and keep working, I'm going to get there," he said. "It's not going to go as fast as you'd hoped, but you'll get there."

The Raptor Robotics team operates as an after-school program under community sponsorship. It competes in the FIRST robotics program, one of several robotics organizations in the United States. Smaller robotics projects can be incorporated in school classrooms, said Ricky Quinones, marketing manager for Innovations First International, suppliers of educational robot kits and components for schools and robotics competitions.

"We try to make challenges that relate to the real world in an engineering job," Quinones said. "Students learn about creativity, working on deadlines, making smart choices and using a group decision process. It also helps people identify what they are best at, and where their strengths and weaknesses are."

Quinones said FIRST competitions are organized so that students can interact with real-world engineers. His company uses grant programs to create opportunities for students in lower-income areas, and to draw girls into robotics programs. Both groups are underrepresented in the engineering field, and that needs to change, he said.

College readiness

Participating in robotics competitions, science fairs and other engineering-based extra-curricular activities isn't enough to prepare a student for success in a college engineering program, though. Accordingly, it's important to build deep student understanding of mathematics, science and engineering principles. And, it means students must persist through a challenging sequence of math and science classes in high school.

Typically, that means completing Algebra I in eighth grade, then taking Geometry, Algebra II and Trigonometry and Precalculus in high school. Completing an AP Calculus class makes preparation even more secure, Becker said, even though most students repeat the class in college.

Students need clear incentives for tackling such rigorous course work, and extracurricular programs that connect students to the engineering process can help, Intel's survey said. Peterson agrees. He said he learned structural, mechanical and electrical design principles from his robotics participation. And, he had fun.

Teen views of engineering:

Sixty-three percent of teens have never considered a career in engineering

Twenty-nine percent of teens do not know of potential job opportunities in engineering

13 percent don't think majoring in engineering in college will lead to more job opportunities than any other career

Sixty-one percent of teens are more likely to consider engineering careers after learning engineers make an average annual income of $75,000

Source: 2011 Intel Corp. survey

email: cbaker@desnews.com

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