TTU President's Academy for Emerging Technologies promotes STEM educationAlthough the task of motivating high school students to major in science, technology, engineering or math in college is difficult, Tennessee Tech University is accomplishing the task one student at a time.
Jessica Wynn of Memphis says attending the 13-day TTU President's Academy for Emerging Technologies changed her mind about a college major and a career path. She had planned to major in foreign languages, but now wants to major in industrial engineering and work on national defense weapons. The crux of her decision was coming to grips with an age-old nemesis — math.
"I learned math has a purpose," she said. "No high school teacher could ever come up with a good explanation for why you have to study and learn math, but now I understand."
That's music to an engineering professor's ears, says Ken Hunter, academy director. That's just the purpose of the program, now in its second year, designed for 10-11 graders from across the state who are willing to test their interests and abilities in STEM fields.
"We push these students to explore what is possible in these fields," he said. "We expose them to nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, fuel cell research, and a whole host of other areas. The more knowledge they have, the better choices they can make about their futures."
Studies show a consistent decline in science education in the U.S., while other countries continue to improve. According to the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, undergraduate science and engineering degrees within the United States are being awarded less frequently than in other countries, and already the U.S. share of total science and engineering doctoral degrees awarded annually is smaller than both Europe is and Asia is.
Wynn's conversion is just the type of result Hunter says he hopes for and expects more of as the program matures.
"Science is looked down upon at school," said Wynn, who explained that she thinks male and female high school students both carry this sentiment. "Plus, it's not usually presented in an exciting way to make it appeal to students."
The two-week residential program remedies the presentation problem by allowing students to interact with professionals in emerging technology fields through lectures, hands-on activities, assignments and field trips to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Vanderbilt University, UT Space Institute, and Arnold Engineering and Development Center.
The program is funded by private contributions, so there are no fees for the 30-plus students who are selected through a competitive process.
"This is definitely the program to come to if you don't know what you want to do and you don't understand how studying science and math can lead you to a career you'd enjoy," said Wynn.