Rebecca Eidelman: Rebranding STEM for Millennials

What if schools in the U.S. treated their innovation and emerging technologies with as much glamour as they give to athletics? At the New England Board of Higher Education’s (NEBHE) recent Advanced Manufacturing Problem Based Learning (AM PBL) Showcase, industry representatives addressed this question and discussed ways to improve the branding and appeal for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.

The PBL Projects’ AM PBL Challenges—interactive multimedia curriculum modules that promote student-centered learning—are part of the solution to prepare students for the workforce and garner excitement for the rewards of STEM careers, including those inadvanced manufacturing.

During the AM PBL Showcase, the need for curriculum that both prepares student with 21st Century skills and propels them toward STEM fields emerged as an ongoing concern for many of the industry partners with which NEBHE collaborates. Making STEM careers exciting is what drives Don Bossi. The president of FIRST Robotics has made his organization a leader in fostering enthusiasm for STEM activities through robotics competitions. FIRST Robotics, a nonprofit organization that sponsors an after-school robotics program to engage young people in STEM, also focuses on recruiting diverse students who may not have otherwise had access to robotics instruction.

Bossi’s keynote address at the AM PBL Showcase focused on two issues: the quantity of students entering the STEM workforce and the quality of new employees’ skills. Remarking on a study pointing out “leaks” in the STEM pipeline, Bossi commented, “The year this study was done [2008], between ninth grade and college graduation, only four percent of our students actually ended up getting college STEM degrees. How do we stop the leak?”

Bossi would support the STEM pipeline between education and the workforce by increasing the number of students who graduate high school and intend to pursue STEM careers, especially in emerging technologies like robotics. Bossi would also provide students with problem-solving skills for the workforce as NEBHE’s PBL projects aim to do. “As we all know,” he said, “it’s not just important enough to know science, technology, engineering and math, but it’s important to know how to work as a team, how to pick up other twenty-first century skills that really determine impact and effectiveness in so many different settings.”

Unlike robotics, however, the larger sphere of advanced manufacturing struggles with its image—still mistakenly viewed as dirty by people who don’t know how clean and technologically complex the field has become. The industry is also held back by a shortage of workers and a skills gap between incoming employees and those about to retire. NEBHE’s PBL Projects team has been working to demystify the profession and foster interest in AM.

A report released by the New England Council (NEC) and Deloitte earlier this spring, Advanced to Advantageous: the Case for New England’s Manufacturing Revolution, also supports the effort to prepare students for real-world problems with engaging curriculum and problem-solving skills. New England needs to take the demand for more manufacturers seriously: Nearly 60 percent of manufacturing jobs can be classified as AM. According to the report, Advanced Manufacturing—from working with lasers to advanced robotics—is responsible for $62.6 billion of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP).

The Deloitte/NEC report advocates a six-point strategy to address the looming workforce shortage in AM. Among the actions it puts forward, rebranding is one essential step in getting students to consider advanced manufacturing careers. A 2011 report from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, "Boiling Point? The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing,'' notes that among 18- to 24-year-olds, manufacturing ranked last in a list of preferred careers. One of the more effective models to changing student perceptions are the NEBHE PBL Projects’ Challenges, which are considered by the 2015 report to be “holistic” curriculum models that could be used to effectively change the perceptions held by students about manufacturing careers. AM PBL Challenges, or curricular modules, let the problem drive the learning, which, though difficult for students at first, appeals to their sense of curiosity. Teachers are able to step back and let students pursue answers to their questions, investigate ill-structured problems (just like the ones they will discover in the workforce) and assemble solutions with teams (including team members whom they may not have chosen themselves—the same situation they will find in a work environment).

To align the career expectations of millennials with the needs of the manufacturing companies, rebranding needs to begin with the people closest to students: parents, career counselors and teachers, many of whom do not advocate for using STEM skills in manufacturing due to its association with dangerous and outdated working conditions. A recent survey commissioned by the Alcoa Foundation and SkillsUSA found that 89% of parents underestimate the minimum wage of advanced manufacturing employees by $12, and one in five parents believes that manufacturing jobs don’t offer benefits or job security in a recession. In fact, the opposite is true: according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, entry-level manufacturing engineers have an average annual salary of $60,000; 90% of manufacturing workers receive medical benefits; and manufacturing employees have the highest job tenure in the private sector.

These benefits, however, do not necessarily attract students to manufacturing careers. According to the same study, “67% of manufacturers reported a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers, and 56% anticipate the shortage to grow worse in the next three to five years.” Increasing the number of students pursuing STEM professions is vital to the survival and growth of the advanced manufacturing industry.

With increased awareness about the opportunities for stable, high-paying and in-demand jobs in the manufacturing sector, the skills gap that is of such concern to the industry may begin to close. In an effort to supply students with the vital 21st century skills they need to thrive in the workplace, NEBHE will be scaling up its efforts with a PBL Resource Center to continue disseminating Challenges from the AM PBL, STEM PBL, and PHOTON PBL Projects. The PBL Resource Center will also focus on professional development and training to extend the reach of its resources among educators. After the Showcase, Kelli Vallieres, president and CEO of Sound Manufacturing, in Old Saybrook, Conn., commented on scaling up the PBL projects, saying, “The PBL projects have provided the foundation for changing teacher practice. In order to gain real traction, I believe we need to work with administrators to begin the systemic changes necessary to impact teacher practice on a large scale.”

With support from industry leaders and efforts across New England to rebrand the mechanical professions, NEBHE will be in a uniquely powerful position to advance its curriculum throughout the region.

Rebecca Eidelman is project coordinator for Problem Based Learning (PBL) Projects for the New England Board of Higher Education (, from whose Web site this comes.