Amphitheater Middle School engineering and robotics teacher Scott Weiler hung a 6-foot poster of the Orion spacecraft at the back of his Tucson, Arizona, classroom in 2011. That summer and for the three following, he worked at Paragon Space Development Corporation, learning about life support systems and building the equipment for the Orion, which launched Dec. 5, 2014. The week leading up to the launch, Weiler shared the importance of the mission with his students, taught them the mechanics behind rockets and explained how he and his co-workers had developed the systems.
At the beginning of every school year, he has talked about the spacecraft featured on the poster, letting students know that they could eventually undertake this type of engineering. This year, the American Society of Civil Engineers, Southern Arizona Branch, recognized Weiler as its 2015 Southern Arizona Educator of the Year.
In May, Weiler will complete a master’s degree in STEM Education through the University of Arizona’s Teachers in Industry program, which began in 2009 and offers work opportunities in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) in addition to coursework on teaching and STEM content. According to Teachers in Industry Director Julia Olsen, Raytheon Company approached the University of Arizona College of Education to develop a new approach that would ensure “industry work experiences would transfer back to teachers’ classrooms, helping both to retain early career teachers and help them improve their teaching practice and ultimately influence student learning.”
With industry perspective, Weiler realized he could open the eyes of his students to educational and career opportunities. He says that being part of a low-income school community, his students take away more from his engineering and robotics class than students in other districts might because they are “determined and really struggling to want something more.”
“Students don’t have a concept of what’s outside this neighborhood. If they can’t see it, they can’t aspire towards it, they can’t dream it, they can’t want to do something more,” he observes.
That’s why in August 2012, he founded Girl Power in Science and Engineering, a club for girls at his middle school. He arranges mentorship luncheons with executives from companies such as Universal Avionics Systems Corporation and coordinates field trips. Recently, club members visited the University of Arizona to meet with its chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.
Raytheon lists Teachers in Industry on MathMovesU, its website with information for educators, parents, policymakers and elementary through college-age students. Appealing to a wide audience “ensures that not only do we provide students the necessary resources and knowledge to continue their interest in math and science, but that they’re prepared when they go on to the next level, elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school and high school to college because by having that continuous support, that is how we develop the next generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians and other technologists,” says Hahna Kane Latonick, senior cyber engineer at Raytheon.
Developing that next generation has become an urgent concern. According to the U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index, while the number of STEM jobs is on the rise in the United States, the education-to-employment pipeline isn’t producing enough talent to meet the country’s future employment needs.
High school student interest in STEM fields reached a low point in 2004, dropping nearly 19 percent from the 2000 base-year calculations. Interest levels climbed steadily until 2009, but then began to drop again, in spite of the academic and government efforts to encourage students to study science; in 2013, they were just slightly below where they were in 2000.The lack of progress among female and minority students is especially troubling in the long term.
Like Raytheon, IBM Corporation and Bechtel Corporation – an engineering, project management and construction company – are enhancing education in STEM subjects through partnerships, volunteerism and philanthropy.
“Every engineering company wants to make sure that they have a healthy pipeline, but, I think, increasingly, it’s not just about creating that healthy pipeline for companies. It’s really become a matter of American competitiveness,” says Charlene Wheeless, head of Bechtel’s global corporate affairs.
While it is high school and college graduates who ultimately fill that pipeline, outreach programming increasingly focuses on younger students.
“Initially there was a lot of focus on college, and then, in time, it became focusing more on high school, and it’s moved farther back now into middle school, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we start hearing more and more about programs that are starting in the elementary school-age kids,” Wheeless says