Engineering Challenge for the 21st Century Program

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 June 2008 — Vol. 86, No. 5


Teens trade vacation for workforce training

Result? ‘I’m going to be an engineer,’ says one. ‘We learned how people work together,’ says another.

By Lesia Winiarskyj

CBIA writer/editor

At least one group of Connecticut teens is now better prepared for the rigors of a technical workplace: Twenty-two inner-city high school students recently took part in the Engineering Challenge for the 21st Century. This intensive, four-day program not only teaches engineering principles and mechanical processes, it also strengthens interpersonal and teamwork skills.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the CBIA Education Foundation coordinated this year’s program in cooperation with the Connecticut Community College System’s Regional Center for Next Generation Manufacturing. The program, held at Manchester Community College, drew high-achieving students from Hartford Public High School and A.I. Prince Technical High School in Hartford.

“For many of these kids,” says teacher Jim Clarke, “it was the first time on a college campus.”

Clarke, who heads the advanced manufacturing technology department at Prince Tech, sent 13 of his students to the program. It took place during spring vacation, he adds, when students could have chosen to stay home and relax. Instead, they immersed themselves in project-based learning — investigating fiber optics, lasers, and other concepts and devices; reading wiring diagrams; and producing concise, focused lab reports and field reports.

Technical, team-building and other skills

John Birch and his team at The Birch Group LLC designed the Engineering Challenge eight years ago. Birch, a consultant specializing in strategic planning and leadership development, works primarily with employers in industry, state government and the nonprofit sector. He says a growing concern among his clients is not only a lack of technical and academic competence in the workforce but also weak leadership, team-building and communication skills — all of which the Engineering Challenge addresses.

“On the one hand, we’re getting young people enthusiastic about the world of advanced manufacturing and engineering,” he says. “But we’re also emphasizing the professional qualities they’ll need to succeed in that world: respect, oral and written communication, accountability, leadership and people skills. These used to be known as ‘soft’ skills,” he explains. “We’re now calling them ‘key’ skills.”

Birch expected every student invited to the Engineering Challenge to put his or her best foot forward — and he was not disappointed. “We had perfect attendance and 100% participation.”

Job-ready, willing and able

“We learned more than engineering, machining and how things work,” says Daeson Benjamin, a sophomore at A.I. Prince. “We learned how people work with each other. We discovered DISC and our own styles.” (DISC, which stands for Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, Conscientiousness, refers to a group of psychological inventories that examine people’s personalities and behaviors.)

“When you work with people, you have to know how they react toward you and your orientation toward them,” adds classmate Jaritza Rosado. “Some people just want to get things done as quickly as possible. Some people talk and talk, and it seems like they’re never going to get anything done. You might think this person’s being rude or that person’s not doing their job, but it’s not always true. You find out when you do DISC that people are just different in how they approach situations and problems.

Everybody brings something to a team.”

When asked if they would attend Challenge week again, all students raised their hands high. Asked about their plans to continue studying, living and working in Connecticut, most kept their hands up. “There are good jobs here,” says Brittney Clarke. “Before, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Now I know. I’m going to be an engineer.”