STEM booth sparks future engineers

“Engineering Our Future" booth highlights invest by Rockwell Automation in next-gen technical professionals

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Because most engineers aren’t just born that way, the individuals who will support industry tomorrow need active and continuous cultivation. This is why Rockwell Automation has been ramping up its investment and participation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs for years to inspire and nurture the coming generations of technical professionals, who will replace their rapidly retiring predecessors.

Because new engineers won't just be needed tomorrow or next week, but for years and decades to come, Rockwell Automation and all STEM programs seek to attract youngsters from high school down to kindergarten with For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics competition for 9-12 graders, FIRST Tech Challenge for 7-12 graders, FIRST Lego League for 4-6 graders, and FIRST Lego League Junior for K-3 graders.

At its earliest stages, FIRST lets 5-6-year-old play with block programming tools. "Just as it's easier to learn a language when you're young, it's easy to learn engineering concepts at an early age," explained Jay Flores, global STEM ambassador for Rockwell Automation.

Multiple layers, many skills

This multi-pronged approach was on full display at the "Engineering Our Future" booth on the exhibit floor this week at the Automation Fair event in Houston, where FIRST mentors and local student teams showcased their robotics activities and skills for the thousands of attendees visiting the show floor.

The full-sized competition space featured a mobile, rolling, wirelessly networked robot named Nautilus, which was built and programmed by Cryptonite Team 624 from Cinco Ranch High School in nearby Katy, Texas, which collected and launched plastic balls into a "boiler" container and also put large plastics gears onto pegs. The robot uses several Rockwell Automation technologies, including a CompactLogix controller, Stratix 5400 Ethernet switch and ArmorBlock I/O modules.

"Our STEM efforts—including my position that lets me do it full time—combine our passion with our need to develop more engineers and technicians and grow our industry," said Flores. "The main focus of Rockwell Automation's philanthropy is education, and the main focus within that is STEM. We want to convince kids and their families that engineering and manufacturing are cool." Flores added that he's part of the company's overall talent effectiveness organization, which maintains university relations, focuses on talent acquisition, and seeks to maximize the impact of Rockwell Automation's philanthropic commitments.

Math and the right questions

Supplementing the FIRST programs, the "Engineering Our Future" booth also included a Spatial Temporal Math (ST Math) area, which provided visual and interactive mathematics activities to youngsters in 8th grade and younger, so they can develop more of the math abilities needed in STEM and other disciplines.

"Kids can be inspired by STEM, but ST Math gives them some of the math-ready skills they'll need along the way," added Flores. "ST Math hosts family math nights for kids and their parents, and seeks to break the stereotype that it's OK not to be a math person."

The key to getting kids interested in STEM, math and other technical subjects is to start when they're very young, added Flores, but he emphasized it's also crucial to maintain their excitement and interest over the long term. "We can do this by providing a safe space for STEM, and remind them that it's OK to fail and try again—which is a central principle of all kinds of engineering," explained Flores. "Too often, kids are told to stop asking 'why,' and they do—even though it's probably the most important engineering question of all."

Anuraag Routray, 10th grader at Cinco Ranch High School, added, "We built our Nautilus robot from scratch and parts, and it's new challenges like this and how the games change that keeps my interest. I'm planning go into mechanical engineering."

More than robots

Even as it draws more students to engineering and technical fields, Flores added that another of FIRST's recent priorities is to communicate that it's "more than robots," and that engineering includes all kinds of problem solving in many other fields, too.

"For instance, Lego League's annual theme for this year was 'water," and so the kids and their teams were asked to identify water-related problems in their regions, such as sanitation or preservation, or even droughts in California or excessive lead in Michigan, and then try to come up with solutions for them," explained Flores. "The ideas and solutions many come up with remind me why I don't like the title 'future engineers' for FIRST participants because they're practicing real engineering right now. Many FIRST judges have said, 'No way you're this young!' I think some of the older teams even have patents, and have already talked to more professors than I did at the college I attended."

Now that many STEM programs like FIRST and others have been established for years, Flores reported they're producing graduates, interns and employees for many companies. "One of our top mentors in the Milwaukee area said he knew that his STEM efforts were successful when he realized that one of his former STEM students was not only a colleague at his company now, as well as a STEM mentor, but was also speaking more during the call than he was," he said.

In fact, to encourage more Rockwell Automation employees to serve as mentors, the company offers sponsorship funding to teams with company personnel onboard. "So far, we've sponsored more than 200 teams, which means we also have more than 200 STEM mentors on staff," added Flores. "Most are in the Milwaukee and Cleveland areas, but we've also got teams across the U.S., and worldwide, especially in Mexico and Australia. We're also supporting FIRST events in Singapore, India, Latin America, Asia-Pacific and Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA). We're also encouraging our partners, distributor and customers to become mentors."

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