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Technology Corner: The Road To Great Technicians Starts With STEM

You are in 5th, 6th or 7th grade. You do not enjoy school because you find it hard to grasp what is being taught by listening to a teacher stand in front of the class, draw on a board and tell you to read a chapter. You are so happy when art or PE comes up because you can excel in one or both of those. At home, you can do all the technical things that Mom and Dad can’t by figuring them out. Odds are you are a tactile learner.

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You are in 5th, 6th or 7th grade. You do not enjoy school because you find it hard to grasp what is being taught by listening to a teacher stand in front of the class, draw on a board and tell you to read a chapter. You are so happy when art or PE comes up because you can excel in one or both of those. At home, you can do all the technical things that Mom and Dad can’t by figuring them out.

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Odds are you are a tactile learner. Odds are you are a little (or very) disenfranchised with the entire learning process. Odds are that the school system has labeled you not as the amazing and rare character that you are but as a troublemaker or a less-than-smart child.

If this description fits you or someone you know, there is good news.

I am fond of saying there is nothing like a crisis to bring everyone together and create cooperation. The United States is up against a serious crisis. Namely, we are facing an inadequate supply of people who can fix our plumbing, electrical, HVAC systems and, yes, cars.

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The people who repair everyone’s 1st and 2nd largest investments have been undervalued for so long that even those in these industries don’t recommend the career to their own children. Now, every vertical has a shortage of talent. Automotive repair has the most desperate supply issue because, unlike the other skilled trades, we lack an organized apprenticeship structure and, well, the paycheck is not all that great on the average.

The kinds of vehicles and the evolution of the types of services needed are making it difficult to use an “off the shelf” solution borrowed directly from another industry. However, since the birth of the automobile we have faced numerous technological changes that were certain to spell the death of independent auto repair – and every time the adaptive folks who work in this industry have figured it out. Let me take you back to my friend the 5th grader and show you one solution that I am very blessed to be involved with.

A year ago, I was involved in starting a new 501c3 organization called the Foundation for Advanced STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) Education or FASE. STEM is what we do on a daily basis and education professionals are finding that grades improve and learning is enhanced for many students when teaching involves real world application of these skills to problems by students working in teams. Many in the industry believe so strongly in this idea that they are pouring money into encouraging programs. Many of these smart but “at risk” students blossom in this environment and learn that a 4-year degree is not the only way to become a contributing member of society.

Have a look at the faces in the pictures accompanying this article. You will see determination, joy, teams working together and sometimes tears of frustration that things did not go quite as planned. What you can also see is learning, problem solving and social skill development with a big helping of “do you mean algebra does have a use?”

This is the inaugural FASE, Horizon,Tech Force Foundation Elementary School Hydrogen Competition. Through this competition, nine Denver metro area schools were supplied with small hydrogen fuel cell kits to design and build their own cars. Teams were judged on creativity, engineering, innovation, schematic development and, of course, longest distance traveled on a single charge of the fuel cell.

The designs ranged from a stripped-down chassis to helium-filled balloons with a fuel cell-powered propeller (the student needed more math skills to determine the amount of helium necessary to hold up a fuel cell, electric motor and air frame but the design was innovative).

After 3 rounds of intense competition the young man with the Packers jersey led the team whose creation traveled the longest distance at 91 feet total.

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The longest single pass was the work of a 1st and 2nd grade team with a smartly dressed young woman of 7 as its pilot. The first time they launched, their wheels made from CDs slipped on the axle resulting in a “did not start.” As the tears started rolling the rest of her team and teachers reminded her that they had two more tries and time to attempt a repair.

The kids are allowed to ask their teachers questions, but adults are not allowed to be hands on, no matter how much our hearts are breaking. These kids found a solution and in the 2nd round they made the longest run all day: one time up the track to another waiting child who turned it around and sent it back to the pilot who sent it back again where it finally depleted its cell at 67 feet. The average run was about 9 feet.

The goal of FASE is to bring age-appropriate projects like this to elementary and middle schoolers in our area in support of what we are already doing at the high school level in my hometown. Throughout the year, the STEM team at Wheat Ridge High School competes in and wins competitions with student team-designed, -built, -marketed and -piloted hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

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They say pictures are worth a thousand words – the rest of this story is visual. I believe that if you want great technicians, you have to start growing them early by pairing aptitude with learning.

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