At the recent WLRN/Miami Herald-sponsored Town Hall on Session 2013 panelist Sen. Jack Latvala mentioned the need to focus on science and technology education to better prepare Florida's kids for a tech-centric global job market. It's a point echoed by Lew Crampton who serves as president and chief executive officer for the South Florida Science Museum.
"Some of the best jobs are in the industries of science, technology, engineering, and math," Crampton said.
These four education areas -- known collectively as STEM -- are at the heart of the museum's upcoming "Drop It, Build It, Fly It, Launch It, Thrill It" event on Saturday. The 27th annual engineering competition, hosted in partnership with the Florida Engineering Society, is open to Palm Beach County students from elementary through high school.
Teams and individuals will compete in five challenges, with everything from constructing "the ultimate" water bottle rocket to engineering an unbreakable bridge out of balsa wood. Cash prizes are awarded across the categories and age divisions, and about 400 students and families are registered to participate.
Crampton said the response for this year's event is nearly double that of previous years and organizers had to cut off registration due to capacity concerns. The popularity of the competition may signal a larger movement, as Crampton said leaders in the School District of Palm Beach County have noted an uptick in interest in science fairs and the like.
"I think there's a trend here," Crampton said.
Saturday's competition is a fun, hands-on learning activity, but it's also intended to get young people to seriously consider pursuing careers in the STEM fields. With Palm Beach County "working to develop its own high-tech sector," there is a benefit to preparing local youth for jobs in the industries, Crampton said.
With the United States lagging behind many other developed countries in math and science education and proficiency, Crampton there's a clear need to better prepare "the next generation of workers" in these high-earning fields.
"It's not just 'a nice thing to do'," Crampton said of Saturday's competition and similar events. "It's important to be competitive on a global scale."
Crampton said the United States "still has a long way to go in terms of catching up." Indeed, a U.S. News story from last year cites a 2010 National Academies report that ranked the United States as "27th among developed countries in science or engineering." Meanwhile, the publication reported in January that "even though the number of jobs in science and engineering is expected to surge in the years to come, close to 60 percent of the nation's students who begin high school interested in science, technology, engineering, and math, change their minds by graduation."
Even so, Crampton said he and colleagues are hearing from more students and parents in Palm Beach County who are expressing newfound interest in the STEM fields; and getting the parents on board is a critical step, he said.
Next year's museum competition is expected to grow even more. Crampton anticipates greater involvement from local tech-centered businesses, universities, and schools. While registration for this year's event is closed, the general public is invited to attend as spectators. The competition is 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday at the museum in West Palm Beach.