Engineering the Future

How to land a job as a CEO while in high school.

GUEST COLUMN | by Sandeep Hiremath

credit-bestIt’s no surprise that a STEM curriculum reaps many educational rewards by exposing students to practical, hands-on learning. For Alaina Pettus, a science teacher at Brooks High School in Killen, Ala., her approach to STEM education opened doors beyond the classroom by introducing students to a robotics competition that taught them how behave as if they were running their own business.

BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology) is a national, six-week U.S. robotics competition held each fall that is open to middle school and high school students. Pettus’ experience building an award-winning student team taught her that it wasn’t enough to simply design, simulate, build and operate a working robot. She quickly learned that the most effective way to run a successful project was to structure her team like a company.

Bringing the Real World to the Classroom

Each year, the robotics team is managed by a president who works with team leaders overseeing section teams dedicated to engineering, programming, marketing, graphic and web design, video production, budgeting, and presentation development – in short many of the components required to operate a business in the real world.

When students are equipped with the proper tools, they rise to the challenge and become better problem solvers, communicators, and collaborators.

The competition officially kicks off at the beginning of the school year, but the planning and development process actually begins well before that, typically just as the prior year’s competition wraps up. Students from Team Robocon come together after school and on weekends, and along the way develop a variety of skills prized by employers: planning, time and staff management, the ability to communicate with cross-functional groups, and problem solving.

“Since we started participating in BEST, I have seen a real change in the way my team approaches the competition that carries over into their interactions with classmates,” Ms. Pettus said. “Instead of operating in silos, there is more of a tendency to collaborate and work together to find solutions. It is a much smarter way to approach problem solving.”

And just as any company must do, Team Robocon is always on the lookout for new “employees.” As part of their post-competition evaluation, team leaders survey the talent pool to identify potential skills gaps by understanding which students will be graduating. Existing team members and new students are then invited to complete job applications and are interviewed, after which “hires” are made based on interest and aptitude. In addition to on-the-job training, younger students are mentored to develop the next generation of team leaders. Effectively, it’s the same approach to succession planning adopted by major corporations.

The Business Approach Benefits Students, Teachers

According to Pettus, the business approach to the BEST competition instills freedom, trust, and a level of enthusiasm that is leading more of Brooks High School’s students to pursue careers in science and engineering. And they’re not the only ones to benefit.

“My involvement in BEST robotics has forever changed how I approach instruction in the classroom and at home. Through the competition, I’ve learned when students are equipped with the proper tools, they rise to the challenge and become better problem solvers, communicators, and collaborators,” she said. “My children are still young, but even at home I encourage them to ask questions and test solutions. There is no doubt I will encourage them to pursue STEM through student competitions.”

After four years at the helm, Ms. Pettus said her role has evolved. She is still a mentor and there to assist as needed, but it’s the students who are leading the charge and bearing the brunt of the responsibility. The teams even have a thing or two to teach her.

Dive Head First Into Student Competitions

While STEM courses are not yet a mandated part of school curriculum, there is without a doubt a professional demand for these skills. As parents and educators of children who have a passion for STEM know, it is imperative for them to get involved early on so that they are armed with the tools they will need to succeed in high school, college, and the working world.

Student competitions provide an academic and extracurricular advantage. The challenges acquaint students with project-based learning and the engineering tools that they will use for a lifetime if they ultimately decide to pursue a career in STEM. More importantly, student competitions are a valuable exercise in problem solving – whether you are simulating the arm of a robot or working with your colleagues to design an autonomous vehicle, it is essential to know the engineering process.

Sandeep Hiremath is an Education Technology Evangelist for MathWorks.

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