2013-02-19 / Commentary

New soil, new STEMs for Maine graduates

GUEST COLUMN
BY RONALD CANTOR


Ronald Cantor Ronald Cantor Elementary school students want to be scientists, astronauts, doctors and nurses when they grow up. With unlimited imaginations, they dream about building cities and inventing machines yet unknown.

Their enthusiasm starts to dissipate in middle school. By the end of high school and into college, precious few remain committed to fields of scientific or mathematical discovery.

So our economy lacks badly needed engineers, scientists, information technologists and health care professionals.

So much for innovation. So much for 21st-century viability.

Southern Maine Community College pours skilled graduates into Maine’s economy — directly, and by preparing students for bachelor’s and master’s studies.

We continue to graduate skilled machinists, technologists, biologists and health-care professionals in much larger numbers, and with skills far beyond those of yesteryear.

Employers who once hired basic machinists and data-entry clerks now search for CNC-precision machinists and computer network specialists. Southern Maine Community College has advanced with the times. Maine’s work force needs to catch up.

We’ve all heard that Maine needs more graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Our horticulture faculty suggested a perfect analogy: Tomorrow’s work force must be planted and nurtured in an environment that favors growth. Yesterday’s soil can’t support today’s evolved species.

It’s a slow, painstaking process but it will yield many economic blooms atop the STEM.

And it’s work that has to happen along the continuum, focusing on our youngest students through to our emerging work force.

This week, during February break, we are welcoming dozens of elementary- and middleschool students to our Midcoast Campus in Brunswick for the Junior Engineering Winter Break Program.

Dr. Eva J. Szillery and Dr. Richard Eason will work with enrolled students to wow the kids.

They're excited about everything from Lego Robotics and origami to problem-solving and geometry. We’re planting and nurturing seeds.

Last October, we hosted an older group of students — 220 members of Mt. Ararat High School’s senior class visited our Midcoast campus and explored diverse careers in engineering. Composites professor Andrew Schoenberg demonstrated a vacuum forming process that he and his students had developed. We’re cultivating stems.

Planning is under way for other STEM initiatives with more schools, business partners and nonprofits. With UMaine, our partner in Brunswick, Southern Maine Community College has secured a $14,000 grant from Bank of America to create a VEX competition in which high school students use advanced robotics to build competitive devices.

Through that competition, we’ll help students at Lewiston High School and Portland High School maintain or grow their interest in science and engineering.

There are definite benefits, and we see them at the Midcoast Campus.

We haven’t even finished building the Midcoast Campus, yet our first composites graduate will receive his diploma on May 18. Not waiting for commencement ceremonies, he has already landed a job — and a promotion — with Kestrel Aviation.

Another student is enjoying the attention of two composites firms vying to hire him.

Four other students are talking with Owens Corning about a three-month project in product innovation.

We’re blooming.

But STEM careers aren’t for everyone. Pushing a budding artist toward engineering is as silly as telling a born mathematician that her best career prospects are in the theatre.

Our 47 degree and certificate programs cover all territory from liberal studies to welding.

Different seeds produce different flowers. Maine’s economy needs a diverse garden.

DR. RONALD CANTOR is president of Southern Maine Community College. His weekly blog can be found at www.smccme.edu/info/basicinfo/presidents-welcome.html.

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