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

Published: Thursday, Sept. 3 2015 1:08 a.m. MDT

Students guide a robot they made and programmed at the 2012 VEX Robotics Competition World Championship. (Courtesy of Innovation First) 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.

Monticello Utah’s Raptor Robotics team watches the robot they built tackle a challenge. Robotics programs teach students engineering skills. (Courtesy of Innovation First) Monticello Utah’s Raptor Robotics team watches the robot they built tackle a challenge. Robotics programs teach students engineering skills. (Courtesy of Innovation First)

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

Students watch as their robots prepare to place beanbags in troughs. Robotics programs introduce students to engineering careers. (Courtesy of Innovation First) Students watch as their robots prepare to place beanbags in troughs. Robotics programs introduce students to engineering careers. (Courtesy of Innovation First)

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.

The job market for some engineering disciplines is expected to grow faster than national averages through 2020. (Courtesy of Innovation First) The job market for some engineering disciplines is expected to grow faster than national averages through 2020. (Courtesy of Innovation First)

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.

"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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