Charles O. Holliday

Not enough children in the United States study science, technology, math and engineering when they go to college. 

By 2022, the U.S. will face a shortfall of one million people trained in these subjects, despite initiative after initiative being launched over the years by governments, businesses, educators and charities.

I’ve been wrestling with this problem ever since I graduated as an industrial engineer more than 40 years ago. The truth is that people like me need to do a better job of linking lessons on calculus and the periodic table to the great things that can be done with that knowledge.

Every student needs to understand that if they stick with biology and chemistry, they could come up with a cure for viruses like Zika. That if they become an engineer, they could power people’s lives by developing renewable biofuels from crop waste. And if they study math, they could help NASA send people to Mars. 

The knowledge in these subjects is the power to change the world.

Look at Mick Ebeling and his team from Not Impossible Labs, which uses technology to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people. A few years ago, Ebeling read an article about Daniel Omar, who lost his arms after a bomb blast in South Sudan when he was 14-years old.

Ebeling packed 3D printers, laptops, plastic and cables and flew out to find Daniel and build him a new arm. By the time he and his team had finished, Daniel could not only use a spoon to feed himself but he could catch a ball. And Ebeling didn’t just help Daniel. He also trained people working on the ground to use 3D-printers to fit prosthetic arms and legs so they could help other victims of the war. 

Achievements like this can be seen across a range of industries, including the energy sector, which faces many major challenges such as providing universal access to electricity. Tonight, more than one billion people will not turn out the light when they go to bed. It won’t be because they forgot. It’s because they don’t have electricity. 

SunSaluter is one of a number of companies coming up with innovative solutions to address this. The company’s founder is 22-year old Eden Full Goh, who studied Mechanical Engineering at university. She developed a low-cost rotator which allows a solar panel to follow the sun throughout the day, thereby boosting its efficiency by 30%. This design helps light homes in 16 countries that are nowhere near the power grid. 

The more stories like these which are told over the breakfast table, on the journey to school and in the classroom, the more likely it is that more students will study these subjects and apply their new skills to benefit society.

A small school in Raleigh, North Carolina, is playing its part when it comes to inspiring students. Its entire curriculum is based on a list of global challenges published by the National Academy of Engineering, from designing better medicines to improving solar power. It is a school that takes the flickering flame of interest and works hard to keep it alive, to build it into the fire of passion that can create great things.

This approach tapped into the imaginations of students such as Zippy Bush. As a 10-year old, Zippy hated worms but loved science. When the two clashed, she chose science, picking up worms every day to complete a project.

Eight years on, having recently graduated from Wake High School, Zippy’s going on to study Biochemistry and Japanese at North Carolina State University. She credits the school for nurturing her interest in science. “We weren’t learning things that we just forgot about when we left the classroom. These are actually things my generation needs to fix.” 

I have only one voice. But if every parent brings this up before their kids make their way to school, if every teacher mentions it in the first class of the year and if our children keep getting the message that they can change the world, I believe many more individuals in this caring, fearless, can-do generation will be inspired to do just that. They will personally benefit. The planet will, too. 

This article was first published in The Tennessean in December 2016.

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