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Industry Leaders Work Together To Provide Hands-On STEM Experiences

Ellen Delisio headshotWords by Ellen R. Delisio
Health & Education
STEM Education

When Joseph Lubenstein walked into airplane engine giant Pratt & Whitney on his first day of work as a new aerospace engineer in 1970, he had no idea what an engineer actually did. Fresh from college, Lubenstein had logged plenty of time in classrooms, but none on a shop floor.

While hands-on experience now is considered essential to students’ education, companies that offer internships most often seek out undergraduates rather than high-school students.

But Lubenstein, now retired from engineering and education, knows the benefits of early on-the-job training and now devotes his time to helping arrange internships, mentorships and shadow programs for students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, a grade 6-12 magnet school in Windsor, Connecticut. The academy focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses. 

Giving kids real-world experience in  STEM 

“Kids say it helps them think through the whole area of career selection,” said Lubenstein, a former director of the school and retired president of Kaman Corporation. “They get out and see what a shop floor looks like more now and it gives them exposure to production and business processes, so they get to see other aspects of work.” Students who interned at The Jackson Laboratory in Farmington, Connecticut, for example, learned about the application of computational biology. “Kids saw how they could deploy math in ways they had not thought of.”

Capitalizing on his years in the industry, Lubenstein forged relationships with executives at many of the area’s aerospace and technical companies and colleges. “Initially, companies were more interested in college students, but lately they have been more accepting [of secondary school students],” he said. “I did a lot of work to connect students with internships, summer jobs, and career symposiums and bring in upper management from finance, medicine, computer science and engineering.” 

The school’s advisory board is a who’s who of industry leaders. “We treat them [advisory board members] as our advocates within their companies,” Lubenstein continued. “The key is finding a motivated manager and keeping them motivated to participate. The fact that they [managers] are motivated gives us the best shot at keeping a relationship alive.”

Mentoring can help build young students' job prospects

Kaman employees, for example, have mentored eighth-grade students for several years and GKN Aerospace provides mentors for ninth graders. During the school year, students visit the company twice a month and spend about 90 minutes each visit with their mentors, working on projects they decide would be productive.

High-school students can apply for summer internships when they are 16. They must prepare resumes and participate in a formal interview process. About 25 students each summer are hired. 

While many companies draw interns from the college-age pool, Bristol, Connecticut-based Barnes Group Inc. is similarly focused on developing strong relationships with students of all ages, said James Pelletier, deputy general counsel of the Barnes Group Inc., and general counsel of Barnes Aerospace. Last year Barnes had interns in its manufacturing facilities and in its functional groups such as health and safety, contracts and engineering. “We believe it’s important to support the development of STEM education to ensure a strong and diverse talent pipeline in the communities in which we operate,” he said. “As students make early career decisions, we are in a position to both positively influence those career choices, and also offer them key learning opportunities and potentially future employment choices at Barnes.”

Academy students who interned at Barnes demonstrate strong analytical and problem solving skills and have experience with the latest digital and data analytics technology, Pelletier added.   

Building relationships can make a difference for students interested in STEM

“Because U.S.-based companies are competing for top technically-trained talent across the country, we think it is key, now more than ever, to develop relationships with students early on,” he continued. “You build relationships by exposing them to real challenges where they can make real contributions to your business.”

Nearly 4 in 5 STEM college students, for example, report that they became interested in STEM fields while in high school or earlier. (More educators today are adding arts to the mix, and calling the subject cluster STEAM). 

The Academy of Aerospace and Engineering stresses its hands-on opportunities to potential students. The school is part of a continuum of STEM studies that begins with pre-kindergarten students. In 2019, 73 of the first graduates of the pre-k-to-grade 5 Academy of Aerospace and Engineering Elementary School in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, enrolled at the secondary school. 

Most of the students are selected by lottery. The secondary school has a long waiting list. “This shows the demand for high-quality, integrated STEAM education,” said Adam Johnson, the secondary school principal.  “We need to invest in public schools and programs that promote STEM [or STEAM.]”  

The academies are part of a group of specialized magnet schools created by state entities in an effort to reduce racial and economic isolation in urban districts, particularly Hartford. The secondary school enrolls approximately 800 students from 42 towns; about 50 percent are from Hartford. At least half the students are black or Hispanic. “We provide a high-quality STEAM education in a racially-integrated learning environment,” according to Johnson. “We find ways to embed [the STEAM] thought process right from the start. We want to create problem-solving, creative thinkers, who can use their innovative skill set to address the world’s foremost challenges. The goal of what they learn is to make the world better for everyone, whether it is studying the lack of water or climate change.” 

Most academy graduates go on to college, studying the sciences, engineering, computer science or programming or aerospace manufacturing. Some join the military or pursue a trade. “A lot of kids already are interested in this stuff; what matters is making hands-on and engaging activities for kids,” added Johnson. “If we care about them, we need a sustainable pipeline in these areas of study; we need to invest in youth.”

Image credit: Eric Bruton/Unsplash

Ellen R. Delisio headshotEllen R. Delisio

Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT.  Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.

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