Wednesday,
October 22, 2014

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UTDesign's New Program to Stir Children's Interest in STEM Fields

Patrick McCrane (left), Director of Tax Development, Intuit, and Rod Wetterskog, assistant dean for the Erik Jonsson School looks over the shoulders of students Vincent Thieu and Jerry Benavides, Computer Science UTDesign students.

Patrick McCrane (center, left), director of tax development at Intuit, and Rod Wetterskog, assistant dean for the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, look over the shoulders of UTDesign students Vincent Thieu and Jerry Benavides.

UT Dallas computer science and engineering students are helping launch a program designed to fire up interest in the STEM fields among area K-12 students.

STEMfire aims to nurture a pipeline of young students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and prepares them for college and careers at technology corporations.

The project will be implemented by school districts in the North Texas area and corporate members of the Metroplex Technology Business Council (MTBC) in the fall.

STEMfire is sponsored by MTBC, a technology trade association that works with more than 300 companies in the Richardson Telecom Corridor.

MTBC approached the University in fall 2012 to work with UTDesign, a partnership in which corporate sponsors can tap the brainpower of senior engineering and computer science students who need to complete a capstone design project. STEMfire is one of 58 such projects under way during the spring 2014 semester. 

Keith Bryan, vice chair of the MTBC Talent Team, was director of strategy and planning for Cisco Systems when STEMfire was in its initial stages of development. The MTBC was anticipating a 40 percent growth in technology companies in the future, Bryan said.

This has been a need for high-tech corporations for four decades. One of the missing pieces has been the ability to connect companies that want to engage with area schools to help motivate the next generation of STEM-minded students. STEMfire will meet this need.

Rod Wetterskog,
assistant dean for the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science

“We were falling short already. We knew that to stay ahead of the game, our technology companies in North Texas would need more high-tech individuals to be entering the STEM fields,” Bryan said. “We needed a ‘farm team’ that would help develop a pipeline of talent.”

At the same time, MTBC member corporations knew that many students who were beginning their college careers were not prepared for higher-level math and science classes.

Through the STEMfire program, corporate mentors will help teachers engage students earlier in understanding why elements of math, such as fractions and statistics, are essential to success in the STEM fields.  

UTDesign students are building the software matchmaking function for STEMfire. The project will take requests from school districts and then match them with technology companies willing to provide mentors with work-world experience to be guest lecturers, seminar leaders, science project judges, industry tour guides and career mentors for area students.

“STEMfire will connect local high-tech company volunteers to school teachers, to motivate their students to explore and discover STEM careers, embrace project-based learning, take the right science and math courses, and build mentor relationships that will help them succeed as they continue their academic career,” said Rod Wetterskog, assistant dean for the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science.

For each UTDesign project, four students put in about 10 hours a week, or enough to cover a full-time intern’s work. Each team has a corporate mentor.

UT Dallas computer science students began working on STEMfire a year ago. This spring, engineering students will tweak the program to make it “graphically inviting,” Wetterskog said.

Schools and corporate mentors will be able to register this spring for STEMfire. The fall 2014 pilot program will involve six schools in the Richardson, Plano, McKinney, Irving, Frisco and Wylie school districts. 

“This has been a need for high-tech corporations for four decades,” Wetterskog said. “One of the missing pieces has been the ability to connect companies that want to engage with area schools to help motivate the next generation of STEM-minded students. STEMfire will meet this need.”

Having corporate volunteers introduce a range of STEM professions in the classroom will encourage younger students to pursue those much-needed fields.

Jesse Harrison,
a computer science senior

Twenty-one UT Dallas students have developed the five software modules for STEMfire. These modules help companies register as participants; guide them in completing a corporate profile of skills offered; allow teachers to list their classroom needs; enable both corporations and school districts to search for a match; and provide a connection between the two.

Students used the Ruby on Rails software program to develop STEMfire’s registration, search and connection modules. Eventually, the program will process nationwide requests.

Jesse Harrison, a computer science senior, worked on the coding for the STEMfire website. He added the functionality to the buttons on the graphical user interface template to allow the proper information to be submitted after each sign-up step.

“It helped me see what it was like to work in a team environment and to handle continuous communication with our corporate sponsor. I learned that I want to code,” Harrison said.

“Having corporate volunteers introduce a range of STEM professions in the classroom will encourage younger students to pursue those much-needed fields,” he said.

“Personally, I did not start coding until college. I had never been introduced to it before,” he said. “As soon as I discovered coding, I fell in love with it; but, I think that if I had been introduced to coding at a younger age, I could have improved while I was younger.”

Media Contact: Robin Russell, UT Dallas, (972) 883-4431, robin.russell@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu.


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