I remember visiting TanenbaumCHAT five years ago and inquiring about the school’s STEM curricula (the integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).  I was told surprisingly “we don’t do that here.”  It was odd given that STEM occupations were growing rapidly throughout the world and STEM careers are driving innovation and a thriving global economy.

Thanks to a million and a half dollar gift from Danny and Anita Chai, we founded an Engineering Academy last year, established a competitive robotics team, and sent a group of students to the Technion to learn how to design robots that mimic biological systems.  STEM is taking root at TanenbaumCHAT.  This fall will be the Academy’s second year and we will be welcoming 33 students into the program, double the number currently enrolled.

Who are next year’s cohort of Grade 9 budding engineers?  Most of them are tinkerers. They like taking things apart and building things. Some got their start building sand castles and figuring out how to make tall towers stay up.   One built a robot that closes his bedroom door and another that senses when his water bottle is full so that he stops filling it.  Another designed his own website; one does breadboarding (designing electronic circuits).

Whether it’s a zipper, a car, or a robot, figuring out how things work and how to make them better intrigues these students.  “I am very interested in the idea of how things work,” wrote one applicant, “and the science behind it.”  Some have taught themselves coding such as Javascript, HTML, CSS, Scratch, and Python; one is teaching himself how to build an Android app.  All seem to be Lego aficionados.

Among our applicants are students who have built and launched their own rockets, built towers and bridges, reprogrammed crashed or non-functioning cell phones into working computer platforms and working phones with great capabilities, built a solar panelled windmill, created a lottery game using Scratch, and recycled old scraps into new usable objects.  One student was the youngest member of his middle school’s professional IT Department whose job it was to repair computer software problems for the Senior Division laptop program.  Several have experience building robots with Mindstorms EV3.

The entering class is made up of problem solvers, creative thinkers, and inventors.  They are inquisitive and curious.  They like math and logic and programming and a good challenge.  “No matter how hard the task,” one wrote, “I’ll always be optimistic and won’t stop trying until I solve it or fix it.”  All enjoy hands-on projects.

They tend to learn things on their own (Codeacademy, YouTube, Numberphile, and Scishow are popular), but they also recognize that engineers work in teams.  They value collaboration.  They understand that engineering is an “iterative” process; you work on a design over and over until it works.  One student said it this way: “I like the fact that there is no such things as a bad idea.”

I was struck by the number of students who had an influential role model in their life.  For some it was a parent or grandparent.  For another it was a middle school math teacher.  One admires Elon Musk for his dedication to building electric vehicles and rocket ships.  Many attributed their interest to middle school clubs, classes, a bridge building competition, or robotics team.  One said it was the STEM class that sparked her interest; for another, it was a Rube Goldberg contest.

Some know they want to go into engineering as a career.  One thinks a lot about ways to integrate technology into the design of aircraft.  Another aspires to be an astronaut in space.  One wants to understand how hardware and software interact in order to design new electronic devices.

Why are these students interested in the Anita and Danny Chai Engineering Academy?

All acknowledge the important role that robotics, automation, and technology in general will increasingly play in the world of tomorrow.  One wrote “I believe it is essential that all kinds of people have the knowledge of engineering so they can use it for the benefit of the world and humankind.”

Another cleverly captured the thoughts of all the applicants: “In today’s technological world, I feel the engineering program is a pathway for life (Chai) into a highly skilled field that will open up many options for me.”

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