Tampa Bay area grows next generation of STEM experts

With the U.S. job market demanding more and more skilled engineers, all eyes are on STEM education (Science/Technology/Education/Math). According to a recent Forbes report, engineering job growth saw a double-digit increase between 2010 and 2014. 

Tampa Bay is responding in kind, grooming the next generation of STEM leaders through award-winning local engineering programs. Here are three that have earned special recognition.

East Lake High School Academy of Engineering

When J. Paul Wahnish sold his successful engineering company almost 17 years, he knew he still wanted to be involved in the industry. Too young to retire, he decided to get into teaching while also playing with the idea of starting a nonprofit educational foundation in the area. This ultimately led to the formation of the East Lake High School Robotics Boosters in 2001.
 
Flash forward 14 years later, the organization now known as the East Lake High School Academy of Engineering currently serves 600 students.

“It was a vortex that just sucked me in hook, line and sinker,” says Wahnish of his passion for teaching.
 
Turning every student into a manufacturing engineer isn’t Wahnish’s goal. Instead, he says he aims to give kids the opportunity to use hands-on experiences to learn the critical thinking skills that are necessary for success in any industry. 

If you visit the academy (a Project Lead the Way school), you’ll notice massive engineering equipment and worktables in place of traditional classroom desks. With safety googles on and tools in hand, the kids are also eager to get to work. Class projects have included everything from handmade pens crafted from dark Indian rosewood, to model trains created with 3-D printers.

“It’s really good experience for what I want to do after high school,” says sophomore Erika Brickner. “I want to be an engineer for the military.” 

Graduates of the program have gone on to do great things. Albert Manero, a former student of Wahnish’s who went on to study aerospace engineering at UCF, recently developed a bionic arm for a 6-year-old boy in Orlando. For Wahnish, the story represents the ultimate reward.

“It’s a passion beyond belief,” says Wahnish. “I’m just one guy, but I like to think I make a difference.”

In 2013, the academy was recognized as one of the top engineering programs in the United States.

Middleton Magnet High School Engineering Program

Tomorrow’s engineering leaders are building a strong foundation at the high school level. Middleton Magnet High School is at the forefront, consistently ranking at the top of worldwide robotics competitions. According to Kathy Freriks, lead teacher for magnet programs, much of the credit goes to the school’s cutting-edge pre-engineering curriculum.

“The reason it was developed is, historically, the dropout rate for engineering colleges was always very high,” says Freriks. “After researching the problem, the experts realized that students coming into engineering had no background knowledge.”

Enter Project Lead the Way, an innovative nonprofit organization that creates targeted K-12 STEM curriculum programs. Its pre-engineering curriculum has been at Middleton since 2002. Freriks says the no-textbook program is heavily driven by hands-on experiences with real equipment. In fact, one milling machine was so massive that they actually had to enlarge the doors of the classroom building to get it inside.

“[The curriculum] is very hands on and promotes critical thinking, high-order thinking and teamwork,” says Freriks.

Curriculum aside, the engineering teachers at Middleton also play a crucial role. The school places a serious emphasis on teacher training. For example, Freriks shares that one of her teachers completed four weeks of targeted training this past summer to prepare her to teach the new engineering courses she’d been assigned for the upcoming school year. The training was provided by Project Lead the Way. 

Another key component of the program is Middleton’s duel enrollment initiative with USF College of Engineering. The partnership allows the high schoolers to visit the campus three times a week to complete college-level engineering courses. According to Freriks, the experience only better prepares the kids for what awaits them after graduation.

“STEM is where it’s at right now,” she says. “We have a shortage in engineering, and our students are obviously going to have an advantage over other students applying to engineering colleges.”

USF College of Engineering

Between its undergraduate and graduate programs, USF College of Engineering currently enrolls roughly 5,000 students. According to the 2014 USNWR Graduate School Ranking, the university’s industrial/manufacturing engineering program ranks in the top 50 nationwide.
 
Robert H. Bishop, dean for the USF College of Engineering, says that embracing a hands-on, creative approach to engineering education is what sets the program apart. 

“I think what’s happening nationally is that there’s been this reimagination of what engineering education is about,” he says.
 
According to Bishop, it is student-centered, active learning that really drives the college forward. These ideas are put to real-world use by way of local involvement in the community. For example, Bishop says that the engineering college is paving the way when it comes to local energy, robotics and transportation research. Another major research focus area is in secure and renewable energy.

Another key component of the program is uncovering the many ways in which engineering ties into other industries. Graduates go on to work for startups, law firms and other companies that aren’t necessarily thought of as traditional engineering employers.
 
“This really reflects the broad nature of our program and of the engineering industry as a whole,” he says. “Our students are qualified to work in a variety of different arenas.”

What’s on the horizon? Bishop says the college is contributing to USF’s new master’s program in cyber security.

Read more articles by Marianne Hayes.

Marianne Hayes is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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