Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Monday, December 29, 2014
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STEM Talks Take Root at NEF Regional Dialogues 

Lately the spotlight has been on the workforce to prepare as a country for the future of manufacturing, with the manufacturing community calling for a greater focus on STEM education and training programs that give engineers not only an academic understanding of their profession, but a technical perspective as well.

To accomplish this, the National Engineering Forum has developed a three-pronged approached in keeping the US engineering workforce competitive, for which it hopes to help spread awareness through a series of regional dialogue events held throughout the country. Representatives from universities, industry and government have been invited to gather and discuss the problems they are faced with and how they might be addressed.

At the end of May, the National Engineering Forum will be in Albuquerque for the second in their chain of regional dialogues that are slated for 2013. Following their event in New Mexico will be similar talks in Los Angeles, Detroit and San Diego.

But we’ve already seen the NEF tackle some of these big questions at their regional dialogue at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in April. We recently spoke with Jeff Wilcox, VP of corporate engineering for Lockheed Martin and co-host of the Tennessee event.

To kick off the event, ORNL director Thom Mason talked with attendees about Oak Ridge and its historical commitment to engineering before handing the mic over to Wilcox, who discussed the Council on Competitiveness and the challenges of what have been dubbed, “the three C’s:” capacity, capability and competitiveness. In broad terms, these translate to growing technical talent, helping to better prepare the workforce, and being innovative.

Wilcox explained that at each event, the attendees gather around tables in groups of eight, where they are given a list of five questions designed to help identify industry-wide concerns.

At the top of the list is education: what are universities and businesses doing to generate excitement for engineering and STEM as a whole to address the capacity problem? From there, what training is the workforce lacking to meet today’s engineering challenges? How can these gaps in capability be addressed?

Next came the issue of policy, and how the government can work to have a positive effect on our country’s competitiveness.

There was also interest in the country’s various regions and their unique associations with varying industries: New York and the steam engine, Southern California and aerospace, Detroit and the automotive industry. The key question for attendees was “How did the circumstances of each region lend itself to each industry?” Did they have greater access to human capital, investments or were they centered around a port city? And now that different industries might be in greater demand, are there concerns in particular areas about maintaining value?

According to Wilcox, one problem the community has been grappling with for quite some time is storytelling—a skill most engineers don’t naturally possess. This issue was brought up by a founding NEF member, the National Academy of Engineering, which released a report revealing that engineers aren’t always able to effectively communicate what role their profession has played to ensure the nation’s security and prosperity.

It might seem like an unrelated skill, but for those in the engineering hoping to spread awareness for industry-wide problems, the ability to make a compelling case can be crucial. And of course, it helps to make parents and children more likely to see STEM education and careers in engineering as attractive choices.

This topic led to the final question of how the industry can better communicate the importance of engineering to our future security.

While each table discusses, a student scribe takes notes on the proceedings, which are then compiled and used to create a comprehensive report of the dialogue’s proceedings and any conclusions that may have arisen.

Even after two dialogues, Wilcox was able to highlight some trends surfacing in these reports. For instance, the importance public-private partnerships for both engineering students and businesses was a popular topic of discussion, and falls neatly in line with President Obama’s Manufacturing Innovation Institutes and the push for greater collaboration throughout the nation’s manufacturing hubs.

But beyond policy and workforce training, the one topic that seemed to be a recurring theme was sparking student interest in engineering. Some in attendance suggested an engineering ad and social media campaign that would help kids to better understand how cool careers in engineering can be.

On the same vein were conversations about events like FIRST Robotics, the White House Science Fair and the Team America Rocketry Challenge. Not only have these events pointed out the nation’s young engineering talent, it has also generated enthusiasm and awareness on the parts of students and sponsors alike, which could ultimately lead to a larger, more capable workforce.

After this year’s string of dialogues have come and gone, a culminating national event is in the works for 2014. It plans to feature CEOs, senior-level government leaders, as well as university presidents and engineering deans who will hear the story that is coming together across the regional events and help to create a network capable of uniting the whole of the engineering community that can find and address gaps in the workforce.

But even before the national event is convened, one trend is clear: above all else, the quality of education is on the forefront of the industry’s mind. And it’s not just about boosting enthusiasm for STEM fields: it’s about drawing in the brightest students, giving them not just theoretical but practice skills for their jobs, and keeping our engineers sharp once they’ve entered the workforce.

“Lifelong learning is more that just a clever saying—it’s something that’s required,” said Wilcox.

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