By Patrick Radigan
One weekend a year, the Strategic Air and Space Museum near Ashland, Neb., comes alive with the passion and excitement of competition and fun.
This year, 59 teams from Nebraska and Iowa traveled to the museum to take part in the Nebraska Robotics Expo 2011, an event where youth create and operate Lego™ robots to navigate a course while earning points in the process.
Although only 18 teams walked away with awards, one University of Nebraska-Lincoln administrator said events like the Robotics Expo benefit all parties involved.
"We use robotics as a tool and as a curriculum to help young people get excited and have enthusiasm about studying science and studying math," said Beth Birnstihl, associate dean of UNL Extension. "Maybe they could even explore a potential career in science."
With the growing need for scientists in the state of Nebraska and nationwide, Birnstihl said the development of youth over the next five to 10 years could be paramount to how society is able to
handle global issues. According to Birnstihl, the solution to issues like water conservation and finding renewable fuels start with inspiring youth to explore the science world.
"If you think about today, you've got an iPad, an iPhone, you can Tweet, you've got Facebook, there are lots of opportunities to explore," Birnstihl said. "What we want them to explore are those fields around science, so that in the long run they can use that information to decide what they want to be as an adult."
Help Wanted: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)
Amid all the issues facing the scientific community over the next 10 years, Birnstihl said perhaps the most important issue is the depletion of the scientific job force.
"Nebraska doesn't have enough individuals in our work base to fill the scientific need we have, nor does the United States," Birnstihl said. "We have to step up to the plate as a country and as a state so that we can maintain our job force and supply the businesses in the communities with workers."
One way the university is trying to address this issue is by getting youth involved in specific scientific fields through 4-H and other UNL sponsored camps and conferences, Birnstihl said.
Through these hands-on learning programs, young people in Nebraska and surrounding states have a chance to be involved with something that gives them the belief they can be successful in a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) field.
"We have to help young people be confident and say 'yes, I can do this,' and that 'there is a job for me that is exciting,'" Birnstihl said.
"We don't know what jobs are going to be created in the next five years, we don't even know what jobs are going to be created in the next two or three," she said, "but we are confident that technology and all the basics around STEM are going to be key for those jobs."
Solving Tomorrow's Problems Through Science
In addition to efforts being made with local youth, other efforts focus on getting college students to work in science related fields once they graduate. With the rising demand for workers in STEM fields, UNL Associate Professor of Chemistry Mark Griep said the ability of students to step into the workforce will be critical to the sustainability of both Nebraska and the country as a whole. According to Griep, who also serves as the vice chair of the chemistry department, there are serious implications associated with maintaining an advanced, scientific workforce.
"I truly do believe that we need to focus on the STEM disciplines," he said, "so that we can make those discoveries and we translate them into products and economic benefits. We can't just exist in a culture of celebrity and phone apps. It's not enough."
More specifically, Griep said the ability to fill the needs of future STEM fields will be important in handling local environmental and sustainability issues, such as energy production and water conservation. Looking at the current market for scientific discovery and advancement, Griep said the ability of college students to move into STEM fields in the next few years will be important in being able to handle pressing scientific issues and problems.
With the rapid growth and development of populations all over the world, Griep said meeting the needs of the scientific workforce goes hand-in-hand with addressing issues related to the future of modern society.
"We live in cities and they do create waste, so what do we do with that waste? Nobody really thought that through," Griep said. "We've never been this dense before. These issues are only coming up because we are maturing as a culture."
To address sustainability, Griep said it's important to have a workforce devoted to understanding and discussing the situation, rather than relying on the activism of everyday citizens. For Griep, sustainability isn't just about large scale reforms and policy, it's about people understanding the best way to be productive members of an environmentally efficient society.
"The sustainable discussion is actually fairly new," he said, "Certainly people have been talking about it for a while, but I think in terms of citizens thinking about it they aren't anywhere near thinking about sustainability. That's a whole other way of thinking."
Changing Today to Prepare for Tomorrow
In addition to trying to predict and adapt to future issues, Birnstihl also said work being done in STEM areas today could have a significant impact on the future.
National campaigns like Time Warner Cable's "Connect a Million Minds," an effort to get more youth involved in science and math, and other similar projects have the potential to start a movement within the today's younger populations, Birnstihl said.
"We have to work together. 4-H can't do it alone, Time Warner can't do it alone," she said. "When we work together and emphasize the same key points, then the young people begin to hear it over and over."
Through these coalitions and educational programs, Birnstihl said it could be possible to help students learn tools and methods that they can then share with family and friends in their own community.
"As young people return to the farm, and return to the ranch after college, they're going to bring some of those tools with them," she said. "We never stand still, we keep moving forward in terms of the tools we use."
Taking a Universal Approach
According to Griep, both STEM and unrelated fields can benefit from having workers with scientific knowledge. With the complex workings of farms, factories and other processing facilities, there are a number of people involved in the workforce that aren't in science-specific jobs.
However, Griep said, that doesn't mean they can't benefit from having knowledge of what they are dealing with in their background.
"I think that the more people know, the better- I do believe that," Griep said. "If someone is an accountant, I do believe it helps them to know some of the chemistry that goes on in a corn ethanol plant.
"The accountant is responsible (for) tracking whether things are done correctly and the money is spent correctly. How can they do that if they really don't know what the chemicals are?"
Another reason Griep said it is important for all students to have scientific knowledge is because it helps encourage involvement, especially on Nebraska-related issues. Griep said he has found that students tend to have a greater willingness to learn the theories and ideas they are discussing in class when there is a practical, local example to discuss. Especially on issues like high arsenic in water, which is a natural occurring pollutant that affects a number of Nebraska communities, Griep said personal involvement creates a more passionate interest in the students in his class.
"I think it truly personalizes the chemistry for the students," he said. "They do have to think, 'how does this affect me?' In a classroom of, say, 180 students, I've always found one of the students is usually from one of the communities that has these high arsenic levels and they can actually testify what did their community do, so that really does make it real."
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