Blue-Collar Renaissance Begins with STEM

How the focus on hands-on STEM learning in Pittsburgh is helping to develop the essential workforce of the future.

Could this be the coolest shop class ever? Students in northwestern Utah get to fix vintage airplanes for the nearby Hill Aerospace Museum. Students in an aeronautical mechanics course at the local high school are practicing their STEM skills as they work toward more than 170 hours of instruction and hands-on practice with aircraft structural repair. According to museum curator Nathan Myers, the museum is a great teaching tool. “These students could be our future workers on the next models of aircraft, and this can be their start,” he told Ogden’s Standard-Examiner.

Another cool “shop class” is at Austin Polytech in Chicago’s West Side. There, teens learn high-tech manufacturing and computer engineering skills alongside their math, English, and art classes. They graduate ready to work with a certificate that is widely recognized by manufacturers. They also have the benefit of a direct pipeline into a job and further training and education (the employers agree to foot the bill) at one of the local manufacturers who partner with the school.

In Pittsburgh, with its legacy of “Rust Belt” manufacturing, the options are even more inventive. At Shaler Area Elementary School, students get to travel back in time, through space, or under the sea as part of Dream Flight Adventures, “an immersive learning environment that challenges students to use all of their right- and left-brain skills, plus lots of team work, to solve complex problems.”

Elsewhere in the area, students can use the robot-building program Arts & Bots in classrooms to bring their lessons alive. One teacher, for example, had her students create a robotic model of the right arm bones, constructing muscles from pantyhose or red craft foam and tendons from rubber bands. Students learned how muscles functioned, as well as how to program the muscles to move with the Hummingbird circuit board, sensors, servos, and LED lights.

Not to be outdone, students at Clairton High School’s robotics class recently made it to the quarterfinals at the National BotsIQ Competition. Stephen Botos, vice president of sales and marketing at Aerotech Inc., invited the kids to tour their O’Hara factory and learn about robotics and automation careers. Or there’s Senqué A. Little-Poole, a student at the Pittsburgh Science & Technology Academy, who has clearly found his passion in science. His creations were recently honored at the recent White House Science Fair.

Teachers are implementing programs in their classrooms that integrate art and design into STEM and digital learning projects thanks to a series of STEAM grants (A for art) provided by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and the Center for Creativity.

All of these programs are focusing on STEM in new ways and in new forums. Rather than learning science, technology, engineering, and math from a textbook, kids learn by doing.

The efforts focus on STEM for good reason. A forthcoming Brookings report finds that STEM jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree pay 10-15 percent higher wages than jobs with similar educational requirements, an average of more than $50,000 annually. The wage premium is even greater with a college degree. Furthermore, a STEM-based economy is not only good for the individual. It raises wages and lowers unemployment in the entire metro area.

Pittsburgh is primed for this renaissance, starting as it does with a rich manufacturing history. This history creates the roots of an innovator class. The same Brookings report notes that ”High-skilled blue-collar and technical STEM workers have made, and continue to make outsized contributions to innovation.”

Although the blue-collar worker tinkering in the garage is no longer the driver of new patents, he or she is essential to the production, testing, and designing of new innovation. Seeding the next generation of manufacturers can continue the rebirth of Pittsburgh and the region.

Today, the Brookings authors write, there are two STEM economies—the one that requires an advanced degree and the one that does not. The latter draws from high schools, workshops, vocational schools, and community colleges. These workers are the linchpin in the innovation cycle, implementing the new ideas and advising researchers on feasibility of design options, cost estimates, and other practical aspects. They’re innovators in their own right.

We hear a lot about fostering “21st-century skills.” But those skills are not confined to Advanced Placement courses. The kinds of programs in Pittsburgh, Utah, and Chicago are also part of the mix, as are the numerous afterschool opportunities to make and create. These programs are providing kids with the hands-on learning that can help them figure out what they want to do with their lives, and instill the critical thinking skills that will ensure their jobs are evolving, challenging, and participatory.

As Tony Wagner, author of “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World” told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman:

“The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge. As one executive told me, ‘We can teach new hires the content … but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.’ ”

Kids today, if they are to find their vocation and passion, not to mention a semblance of job security, will always need to master the three Rs. “But,” says Wagner, “they will need skills and motivation even more.… Young people who are intrinsically motivated — curious, persistent, and willing to take risks — will learn new knowledge and skills continuously.”

I’d wager that those kids on the airplane or in the robotic competition are learning not only how to think, but the joys of intrinsic motivation and the deep satisfaction that come from discovery through play, tinkering, exploring—of figuring out how something works.

“Reimagining schools for the 21st-century,” Wagner continues, “must be our highest priority. We need to focus more on teaching the skill and will to learn and to make a difference and bring the three most powerful ingredients of intrinsic motivation into the classroom: play, passion and purpose.”

Published May 23, 2013