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The “E” in STEM: Engineering

Photo: STEM students at Southwind High School in Memphis, TN share their robotics.

Imagine having both the passion to make a difference in the world and the technical know-how to achieve it—that’s what engineering and the “E” in STEM is all about. Throughout the state, the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network (TSIN) and its 6 regional hubs are developing pathways for students to learn engineering concepts and explore career possibilities.

Today’s students are growing up in a world surrounded by technology and engineering. “It is very important for all citizens to be literate in core science ideas and fluent in mathematical thinking to understand how these technology objects and engineering processes can enrich our daily lives,” says Dr. Sally Pardue, director of the Oakley STEM Center and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Tennessee Technological University. “Regardless of whether or not a student chooses a career pathway directly in STEM, they will find that ALL careers use aspects of the STEM subjects.”

Job opportunity, earning potential, and the impact of STEM professionals on society make engineering an important career path, yet many students are unfamiliar with engineering disciplines.

“Students think of engineers as people who must excel in math, rarely interact with people, and simply work on computers all day,” says Dr. Stephanie S. Ivey, project director of the West Tennessee STEM Hub and Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Memphis. “While it is true that engineers must be competent in math, engineers do not just sit around and ‘solve math problems.’  The math and science that engineers use is applied to a specific problem in our society, which often makes it easier for students to understand as they have a real-world context.”

Providing students with hands-on opportunities to learn is the mission of the STEMmobile, a mobile classroom and laboratory traveling around 20 rural Tennessee counties. The program of the Upper Cumberland Rural STEM Innovation Hub actively engages students in solving problems using engineering concepts. Activities tie into the Tennessee science standards and teachers can use the STEMmobile activities to enhance their curriculum. For middle school students that means creating and testing parallel circuits or exploring mechanical engineering concepts through creating and changing the characteristics of simple machines. Other activities are designed to engage preK-8th grade students. The on-site educational opportunity brings much-needed technology and hands-on learning in engineering and other science concepts to the doorsteps of rural schools in Tennessee.

At Stratford STEM Magnet High School in Nashville, TN, a platform school of the TSIN, students in the Technological Design Department use the latest technology to explore engineering principles and find workable solutions to real-life problems. When broken knobs made it difficult to adjust the temperature on some classroom heating and cooling units, teacher Erik Boczko says his sophomore engineering students knew just what to do. Within a few hours, they created replacement knobs by carefully measuring the original knobs, creating a model in Autodesk Inventor 2013, and printing a prototype utilizing a 3-D printer. How cool is that?

“Engineers must be creative problem-solvers, willing to think outside of the box, and effective communicators,” says Ivey.  Engineers may do traditional design work, fieldwork, management, or a combination of these, so there really is an opportunity for people with a variety of personalities and strengths.  Regardless, all engineers make a significant impact on society, and we owe many of the conveniences, improvements in safety, advances in technology, and amazing medical devices available today to the work of engineers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics the field of engineering is expected to grow by 10 percent in the coming decade. Experts say demand for engineers will continue to grow as governments and industry work to meet the challenges of a growing global population and dwindling resources.

Learn about interesting STEM careers and meet professionals who are making an impact by exploring the West TN STEM Spotlights.

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