Engineering Festival Gives Glimpse of the Future

Friday and Saturday, leaders in STEM from around the country will show off their creations.

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Nigel N. Clark, Ph.D., is West Virginia University's associate vice president for academic strategic planning and the George Berry Chair of Engineering

Among all the high-tech devices, discussions, displays, and developments at this weekend's USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., there's one thing I can't wait to see.

On Friday and Saturday, at the Walter E. Walker Convention Center, I'll have a glimpse of the future.

I'm not talking about seeing groundbreaking science exhibits--though this event will showcase many of them. I'm talking about the festival's participants, the thousands of high school and middle school students who will become our future scientists, engineers, and innovators, and the architects of our economic and technological destiny.

The 2010 report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited," from the National Academies made it clear that America needs more graduates with STEM expertise to support a competitive, sustainable society and economy.

The United States ranks 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering. We must improve these statistics to remain the world leader.

Thanks to exhibits from industry and academia, this weekend the participants will explore advances in artificial intelligence, energy efficiency, satellites, space exploration, simulation software, and more. They will be entertained by scientific marvels and wooed by technological advances. These activities will promote careers in science or engineering, and that is important.

But we cannot assume that they will become leaders without well-structured guidance and support from higher education. Universities must engage with these eager minds more responsibly and comprehensively than ever before.

This next generation of scientists and engineers will experience rapid and profound technological change during their lifetimes. Their university experience must equip them to welcome change, seize opportunity, and shun complacency. They must understand that learning is not limited to years in college. Rather, it is a life-long process.

Our curriculum needs to deliver a comprehensive global vision, and provide social and economic context for technological development and deployment. STEM literacy is essential, but it will need to be married with a broader educational experience. Tomorrow's leaders must be able to blend understanding of different disciplines, and appreciate that progress rests on both science and policy.

On Saturday and Sunday, our West Virginia University team of faculty, staff, and students will invite our future leaders to peer into a Toyota Prius, using a cutaway model that reveals the inner workings of a hybrid electric, fuel-efficient vehicle.

But this same team of educators will need to explain sustainability, finite global resources, and environmental impacts of human industry when the future leaders become our students.

Our WVU display will also open students' eyes to the latest biometric security measures, with a machine that scans irises and provides an enlarged printout. In a successful college experience, these students will learn of the societal and legal aspects of gathering and using these data.

The goal is not simply to "wow" the students and attract them to STEM careers--although that will certainly be one important effect--but to explain the academic pathway that is needed for true success.

WVU, as a 21st-century, land-grant institution, has a broad commitment to providing high-quality education, promoting both basic and applied research, and supporting the state through outreach. Our strategic plan for 2020 has recognized that these three missions are closely related and mutually supportive. Our education must include research experiences at the undergraduate level, to blend existing knowledge with new tools and discoveries. Students need to be engaged with society, and help communities using their newly-found skills.

This weekend we hope to enchant minds with STEM magic and start eager young scientists and engineers on a career path. But that is only a beginning. Educating them to be the nation's future leaders must be a long-term commitment.

To learn more about WVU's STEM disciplines, visit: http://stem.wvu.edu.