Get 'Em While They're Young

18 Jan, 2012 By: Heather Livingston

The latest efforts to shore up the nation's engineering base start with instilling a love for math, science, and technology long before students reach college.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of Cadalyst magazine.

Once a tool that addressed a very specific professional need, CAD today is pervasive, touching just about everything that isn't created by nature. Although most think of CAD and 3D modeling as technology that's taught at the college or professional level, it is now trickling down to high-school and even middle-school classrooms. From software including Autodesk's TinkerBox app to in-school curricula such as Project Lead The Way, CAD increasingly is shaping the education of America's youth in ways that far outstrip its original application as a drafting tool. Its use is helping to shore up the country's supply of engineers by instilling a passion for technology use at a young age — and shoring up students' confidence in their ability to succeed. The latest efforts to shore up the nation's engineering base start with instilling a love for math, science, and technology long before students reach college.

Autodesk's TinkerBox app for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch incorporates science and engineering principles into a game. It is one of several ways the company works to support the interest of young people in STEM pursuits. Image courtesy of Business Wire.

CAD for the Young

When it comes to fostering students' interest in a subject — or stated differently, averting a disinterest in it — current wisdom says the window of opportunity is closing by the time students finish middle school. That, together with an emphasis on the importance of teaching process and critical thinking, is what's driving the push to introduce CAD technologies to students in the third through twelfth grades.

For the past couple of decades, the news media has loudly and repeatedly pronounced the decline of U.S. students' literacy in math and science. That lack of training in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects has led to a shortage of qualified workers in numerous science and technology fields that is projected to grow. Last year, President Barack Obama announced the Educate to Innovate initiative, which aims to improve STEM literacy in children. It provides federal funding for STEM teaching but also relies on support from companies, foundations, nonprofit organizations, and science and engineering societies.

Students in the STEM education program at Gulliver Preparatory School in Miami use CAD software to design solutions to the challenges they see in their communities and around the world. Among other humanitarian projects they have completed, students delivered a portable water purification system to a children's hospital in Haiti in July 2010. Image courtesy of Gulliver Preparatory School.

One program that is improving STEM literacy in schools across the United States is Project Lead The Way (PLTW), a nonprofit organization that provides STEM curricula for middle and high schools that incorporates hands-on activities and project- and problem-based learning with an emphasis on developing critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and problem-solving skills. Through its Gateway to Technology program, PLTW introduces sixth through eighth graders to technology in units that explore aerospace, energy, environmental studies, modeling, and robotics. High-school students have two PLTW tracks: Pathway to Engineering and Biomedical Sciences. Pathway to Engineering coursework explores the design process and uses STEM skills to solve real-world issues.

Sam Cox, senior director of curriculum and instruction for PLTW, says the earlier kids are introduced to CAD technologies, the more they are able to retain and understand. "CAD design is used all over the place; you have to design something to build it. From that standpoint, it's important to give them the tools they need, and one of those tools is design software."

Apart from learning how to operate CAD — and computer-aided machining (CAM), in the case of PLTW — Cox believes there are significant benefits to using CAD to teach math and science principles. CAD gives students a way to focus on working through a design process to understand what must be done to solve a problem, he explains.

In PLTW's Capstone Course for high-school seniors, students identify a problem by asking, "Don't I hate it when ... ?" Then they spend the entire school year working to find a viable solution. This scenario has been so successful that it has resulted in student-patented solutions to real-world design problems.

Students who participate in PLTW programs go on to study engineering and technology in college at five to ten times the average rate of all students, and 97% of PLTW highschool seniors plan to pursue a four-year or higher degree, as opposed to the national average of 67%.

To make all this design- and engineering-related learning possible, PLTW partners with companies to bring the technology into the classroom. The program currently uses Autodesk Revit for design and modeling, Planit's Edgecam for machine programming, and training software from Intelitek for CNC motion and robotics automation.

Supporting Students Is Good Business

Autodesk is an industry leader when it comes to putting software in the hands of students from elementary school through college. The company offers reduced-priced software bundles for education; free software downloads for students; instructor workshops that provide tools for engaging and inspiring students; and apps such as TinkerBox, which introduces engineering principles in a fun and interactive way. In its own words, Autodesk's goal is "to capture the hearts and minds of the next generation to get them proficient and passionate about using our products."

Similar to Autodesk, software developer PTC believes in "creating shared value." John Stuart, senior vice-president of education, says that PTC follows a concept put forth by John Porter in his January 2011 article in Harvard Business Review: aligning philanthropy to a company's business value is the only way to sustain philanthropic investment.

"What he says is that if you are donating money — and PTC hopes to be an exemplar in this — that [you are doing it because your] customers need it," Stuart explains. "[Our customers] need engineers first and foremost. There are not enough of them in the United States to fit the requirement. Second, our customers asked us to train these students in school before they graduate into industry. So, if the model is such that we want to be a good corporate citizen and we want to give back to the community in a meaningful way, then we align it to our business interests when we're making these donations in philanthropy."

Indeed, PTC's long-term philanthropic plan is to create the engineers of tomorrow. It is achieving that goal through its support of programs such as the Real World Design Challenge (RWDC), an annual competition that gives high-school students the opportunity to tackle engineering challenges in a team environment, and FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen to inspire kids' interest and participation in science and technology. PTC supports RWDC and FIRST by assisting robotics teams and making annual in-kind donations, including software.

In the Real World Design Challenge, supported by PTC and other technology developers, students use professional engineering software to solve real-world aerospace problems. In 2010, the team from Baldwin High School in Kansas (above) won the national trophy for designing a jet wing and tail to withstand specific physical conditions. In 2011, the team from Xavier High School in Connecticut won for its design of a next-generation airplane wing that maximizes fuel efficiency and enhances performance.

The kids involved in the FIRST Robotics Challenge, FIRST Tech Challenge, and the FIRST LEGO League have access to PTC's Creo, Windchill, and Mathcad from the third grade through college. This helps them be better prepared to enter the world of design or engineering — one of the key needs identified by PTC's client focus group, which includes NASA, Cessna, MIT, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Stuart says that companies want students to use and be trained on the same software that they're using, "so if it's Caterpillar, Cummins, John Deere, or Motorola, they all use Creo and they love graduates coming into their company already knowing [how to use it]." Stuart also feels that, because the available programs have become so easy to learn and use, students' proficiency in CAD is the low-hanging fruit.

What PTC believes programs such as FIRST deliver — and what sets them apart from the everyday school curriculum — is that the students learn how to work well in teams.

"These students have the ability to learn software, but just as importantly, collaborate and work in groups so that they can do conflict resolution," Stuart says, adding that program participants can resolve design errors and work together to iterate and make a better tractor or a better phone, but they also develop interpersonal skills. Employers recognize that students who participate in these competitions have a head start on the skills that their employees will need to design, build, and compete in the open marketplace.

Star Power

In 2011, the FIRST Robotics Competition got a huge boost in cool, thanks to support from of the hip-hop group The Black Eyed Peas. About the rapper's involvement in the program, Kamen commented, "He's the real deal. He gets it and genuinely wants to help kids get to a better place in their lives and see our country once again become an engine for innovation."

Rapper of The Black Eyed Peas lends some cool to engineering through his support of FIRST and other organizations. In summer 2011, he hosted the ABC special, " Science is Rock and Roll." He stated, "We need to encourage [students] to enter such fields as science, math, engineering, and technology. That's where the real challenge and need is for the future."

In lending his support to the 2011 competition, produced a back-to-school special for ABC that celebrated STEM education and robotics. "I produced ‘ — Science Is Rock and Roll' to make some noise about the country's best and brightest students competing in the FIRST championship," he explained at the time. In addition to running highlights from the 2010–2011 FIRST competition season, "" featured appearances by Bono, Miley Cyrus, Steven Tyler, Jack Black, and other celebrities.

President Obama, who's also making some noise about increasing STEM literacy through Educate to Innovate, appeared at the 2011 FIRST championship event in St. Louis and opened the televised event by saying, "Here tonight we share a love of science, technology, math, and engineering, and most importantly the spirit of invention. That's the spirit that made America the most innovative country in the world. ... We need to encourage our kids and invest in their education. We need to give them the chance to become the next generation of scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs. If they study hard in math and science, then their futures are going to be bright and so is America's."

In 2010, President Barack Obama announced the Educate to Innovate initiative, which aims to improve STEM literacy in children. Later that year the White House hosted a science fair, where the President spent an hour checking out student inventions such as this soccer-playing robot, built for a FIRST Robotics Competition by the Miss Daisy team from Wissahickon High School in Pennsylvania. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

The Professional Within

Our cherished belief in the "American Dream" often leads us to assume that kids who have an interest in math and science will find a way to study these fields in college — but that's not necessarily the case.

Opportunity and exposure to STEM fields are key to fostering interest, but a student's belief in his or her ability to make a contribution to the professional world is an important precursor to pursuing what often is a hidden dream. CAD is helping students gain that confidence.

The Build San Francisco Institute (BSFI), an initiative of the San Francisco Architecture Foundation, is teaching high-school students that they can succeed in a real-world workplace. The program places students who are interested in design-related fields in mentorship programs with local AEC firms. It pairs that on-the-job training with a rigorous academic curriculum, including training in Autodesk Revit, 3ds Max, and Ecotect, as well as other design programs.

Julia Jones, lead instructor, believes that teaching design, engineering, and math through CAD gives a "3D, physical realness" to concepts such as geometry that often are hard to grasp without that visualization. Because children are inundated with images from media and technology from an early age, she believes, they are well suited to understand the world through CAD.

"I don't necessarily have to teach them all of the buttons and what they do," Jones explains. "I teach them beginning steps and then [help them understand how to] problem-solve themselves." She helps students understand how they can teach themselves how to use these programs and where they can access the information when they need it. This skill can be extrapolated into anything, she says. "When you're trying to find an answer, what are your strategies to finding that answer?" She thinks that using building information modeling (BIM) software really helps them practice those strategies.

The Silver Terrace Youth Center project was completed by students at the Build San Francisco Institute in Fall 2010. Students identified a gap in services for youth and decided to develop a facility to offer counseling, homework help, and recreation. This Autodesk Revit rendering depicts the rooftop garden.

Jones says that through the course of the program, students also learn what it means to be an adult by experiencing what's expected beyond high school. Students give frequent group presentations to help them master written and oral communication skills. When they work with their mentors in the architecture and engineering fields, Jones explains, they go into the workplace and learn by example how to treat colleagues with respect, how clothing and demeanor affect people's impressions, and what's expected in terms of job performance.

"They're so used to doing the minimal effort to get a D and pass," Jones continues. She tells students, "There's no D-level work when you're at a job. You get fired for that. [We're] changing their perception of what is acceptable. … I will make them modify the design project until all the components are there — and that's something new for them. It's a bit of a shock."

But, the rewards for making that adjustment are proving to be tremendous. Jones notes that the students' level of self respect skyrockets during the course. Whether it's being assigned security badges to enter their mentor firm's building or hearing praise from their principal for their tremendous effort, the students respond positively to the increase in responsibility. "They feel like adults, so it makes them act like adults because they're shown respect," she explains. Sidebar: "Engineering Schools Emphasize Business Savvy Over Software Skills"

Making a Difference

BSFI is an urban initiative that draws youth from challenged schools and neighborhoods. Jones says that those who become involved in the program often have no plans for life after high school before they enroll. Some participants are in gangs, while others come from prestigious backgrounds. That balance works well, she believes, because the kids eventually learn that they're more similar than dissimilar. Those who have a talent for working in CAD programs end up teaching the others, and it's not necessarily the kids from privileged backgrounds that bring the most to the table.

When one of Jones's recent students began the BSFI program, he hardly spoke at all. He was very defensive and unwilling to open up and engage with the class, she recalls. Before long, though, he became interested in the technology and soon began smiling and interacting with others.

"He learned how to use Revit and he's really good at it. It was a skill he didn't even know he had," she says. Not only was he able to use Revit in the classroom, but he also downloaded it at no charge to work on projects after school. Before BSFI, Jones continues, the student had little ambition and very little understanding of the opportunities that existed for him beyond being a cab driver. Now, he has the option to take something that he enjoys and naturally does well and turn it into a rewarding and lucrative profession. "There are so many cool things that you can do with the software that your imagination is the limit. It pushes students to push themselves," Jones says.

When asked what she believes is the biggest benefit of teaching CAD to high schoolers, Jones responds, "Their self-esteem is hugely raised by doing something that [impresses] adults. Some of the principals of the firms don't know how to use the software — and the kids do! … That makes them feel a little bit more special."

That is precisely why CAD in the middle-school and high-school classroom is so important — because so many students don't even know what they can achieve. Learning CAD and other modeling programs gives them the means to better understand themselves and their potential to contribute to the world at large. It opens doors to new opportunities through modeling and robotics competitions and mentorships. Whereas CAD education on the college level is about preparing those who already are on the path to design or engineering careers for a successful entry in the design world, CAD education in middle and high schools is about learning how to find solutions, working together, and self-discovery.

At the culmination of the semester last spring, BSFI students presented their design projects to a couple of architects, an engineer, and a principal from one of the participating schools. "They were dressed up, very professional, very articulate, and trying really hard," Jones recalls. When they're at BSFI, the students put forth greater effort and passion than when they're at their regular schools. "It's good to see them believing in themselves."

Add comment


Re: Get 'Em While They're Young
by: knorth
February 2, 2012 - 11:36am

Middle School is too late. This needs to start in elementary school. I have tried CAD lessons in my technology classes, and the kids love it. The problem is that few teachers at this level use CAD to integrate STEM into their daily lessons. To fix this problem requires changing the laws where standardized testing is focused on the natural sciences and engineering is left behind or totally left out. In Texas they eliminated simple machines from the elementary school standards, so not a required priority with limited time. The concepts tested are taught. Time to get the social networks with the students at the lead to change things. Please see for some of my ideas.

Re: Get 'Em While They're Young
by: Nancy_Johnson
February 2, 2012 - 2:21pm

Editor's note: Here's an article that offers a different perspective on this topic.

What Scientist Shortage?


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