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Column: Local grad, robotics club demonstrate STEM’s impact

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Educators and manufacturers continue to stress the need for more people to enter the STEM fields — that’s science, technology, engineering and math.

That’s because many employers in those areas can’t find enough workers with the required skills to fill jobs they are creating or already have available.

Mention the word “STEM,” however, and a few students may wonder if you’re talking about part of an apple.

If all students don’t understand the acronym or have a clear understanding of these fields and potential career paths, they might never become interested and miss out on some great opportunities.

Fortunately, local students need not look very far for proof.

They can look to Columbus East graduate Emma Alexander and the members of the local 4-H Robotics Club for role models, information and examples.

Alexander will attend Purdue University, where she will major in mechanical engineering. She received a full-ride Stamps Scholarship, which covers the cost of an undergraduate degree and provides $10,000 in enrichment funds. Her long term goal is landing a job in the biomedical engineering field, possibly working in a hospital with prosthetics.

She’s smart and motivated. Alexander finished second in her class academically, participated in Youth Leadership Bartholomew County and won the Boiler Tech Challenge. Those are accomplishments one typically might expect from a person entering a STEM field.

However, Alexander also breaks stereotypes about the field. She was named queen of this year’s Bartholomew County 4-H Fair. Also, her gender puts her in the minority. Only 2,017 woman earned mechanical engineering degrees in 2007 compared to 14,894 men, according to the American Association of University Women.

What’s important for students to know is that Alexander is following her passion. She’s enjoyed science and math since elementary school.

Alexander has tried to spread awareness of opportunities in the STEM field. For her senior project, she organized a convocation about STEM for middle school students. Professors in those fields presented information about science.

You could argue that the 4-H Robotics Clubs is an ongoing convocation for participants.

The club was proposed a few years ago to keep fair projects relevant. It has 25 members, and the club’s leader, Paul Pulkowski, is an electrical engineer and software writer at Cummins Inc.

Club members benefit from Pulkowski’s weekly guidance during the school year, when he goes through a list of tasks they must complete. The fair was a chance to highlight what club members had learned. They were challenged to program LEGO Mindstorm robots to follow the outline of a circle on a table and navigate around two objects.

For some members, their future could include a job working with robots.

Several said they find working with robots to be lots of fun, in part because the robots can be programmed to do many tasks. Ethan Hoke, who will be an eighth-grader at Hauser Jr.-Sr. High this year, said participating in the club has increased his interest in science and robotics.

For Hoke, the club is a tangible example of what science, technology, engineering and math can do, and what kind of future it could provide to him.

When students look at Alexander, they see a local example of someone whose love of science and math is leading toward a rewarding career that will allow her to help others.

These two examples of the impact and benefits of STEM education should open the eyes of students to a vast array of possibilities in their futures.

Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at 379-5639 or

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