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STEM lesson opens doors for students

| Saturday, April 25, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center’s Will Ankney drives his team’s robot Bedlam in a bout against South Fayette during the 10th annual Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ Finals at the Convocation Center at California University of Pennsylvania on April 24, 2015 in California.
Barry Reeger | Trib Total Media
Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center’s Will Ankney drives his team’s robot Bedlam in a bout against South Fayette during the 10th annual Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ Finals at the Convocation Center at California University of Pennsylvania on April 24, 2015 in California.
Penn Trafford's Patrick Boyle (center) repairs his team's robot Blocky Balboa as his teammates from left to right Guido Marra, Jarett Lazar and Andrew Wisniewski look on during the 10th annual Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ Finals at the Convocation Center at California University of Pennsylvania on April 24, 2015 in California.
Barry Reeger | Trib Total Media
Penn Trafford's Patrick Boyle (center) repairs his team's robot Blocky Balboa as his teammates from left to right Guido Marra, Jarett Lazar and Andrew Wisniewski look on during the 10th annual Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ Finals at the Convocation Center at California University of Pennsylvania on April 24, 2015 in California.

Alex Telford thought he'd go to a traditional four-year college after graduating from Highlands High School in June, probably to major in engineering.

But his plans changed when he got a chance to see modern manufacturing processes up close through one of a number of STEM programs — short for science, technology, engineering and math — taking root nationally to meet a critical shortage of workers in these disciplines.

“I considered myself a college-bound student, but precision manufacturing blew me away,” said Telford, 18, of Natrona Heights. He was participating Friday with a team of Highlands students in the BotsIQ robotics competition at California University of Pennsylvania, a STEM-related program.

After graduation, Telford will enter an apprentice program at Oberg Industries in Freeport that will pay him $34,000 a year plus benefits to start.

“It's better than flipping burgers and better than paying all that tuition,” Telford said Friday.

The two-day BotsIQ competition features student-designed, 15-pound robots that compete one-on-one in a mechanical fight for survival within a Plexiglas-enclosed ring.

It provides students with hands-on experience that allows them to discover the possibilities of a career in the manufacturing sector or other STEM fields. This year, 57 schools competed. Winners will be announced Saturday.

Across the country, the continuing demand for employees with the proper training in science, technology, engineering and math is changing the mind-set of education, officials said.

“We're not making engineers; we're teaching kids to think like engineers,” said Norwin High School technical education teacher Bill Hribal. “That's what we need.”

The BotsIQ program opens doors to students such as Greensburg Salem junior Jake Tokar who haven't decided on a career path.

“It sort of opened my eyes about what's out there,” said Tokar, 17, of Greensburg, who likes the manufacturing side of the student projects.

Program participants are part of a new wave of students that businesses and manufacturers say they need to fill jobs now and in the future. “The pond is fished out,” said Bryan Powell, senior human resources generalist at Oberg. The company employs 630 workers. Some positions, Powell said, are open all the time.

Only 16 percent of high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career, the Department of Education said.

STEM jobs can include applications software developers, market research analysts, industrial engineers, computer programers, medical scientists, nuclear engineers and chemists. Salaries can range from $54,000 for a medical scientist to $91,000 for an applications software developer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We've run into a critical part of our effort to recruit and retain engineers,” said Telford's coach, John Malobicky, who is doing his doctoral dissertation on the STEM shortage. “We've filled the void with engineers from India and China, but with their economies developing, more of them are staying there.”

Parents aren't pushing STEM education, instead opting for four-year programs, Powell and others said.

“Educating parents is a big thing,” Powell said. “Parents don't understand.”

In a 2014 survey commissioned for the Chevron Center for STEM Education and Career Development at the Carnegie Science Center, “only two of five parents had heard of STEM and only one in four thought their school had an emphasis on STEM,” said Linda Ortenzo, director of STEM programs at the center, which reaches 1.8 million students in seven states through the Excellence Pathway on its STEMisphere website.

Despite spending more per student than most countries, the United States continued to perform below average in math in 2012, the latest year for which data was available, and was ranked 27th out of 34 countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The organization administers a survey every three years that measures 15-year-old students' achievement in math, reading and science. Performance in reading and science in the U.S. was near average in 2012.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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