Rethinking the Recipe for Inspiration
BY DANIELLE BOYKIN
The coronavirus pandemic has brought on unprecedented experiences in almost every facet of life in the US and around the world. And these experiences are no different for MATHCOUNTS, DiscoverE, and other STEM outreach programs, but program organizers aren’t allowing the challenges to thwart their missions. Since early 2020, these organizations have transformed how they educate and engage with students, educators, and the public by using virtual technology to provide creative initiatives and programs.
Making It Count
Students, volunteers, and staff alike were incredibly disappointed when last year’s MATHCOUNTS state and national competitions were canceled. But it was a time when there were so many unknowns about COVID-19, recalls Kristen Chandler, MATHCOUNTS executive director.
However, spirits were lifted, says Chandler, by a virtual MATHCOUNTS Week held in place of the Raytheon Technologies MATHCOUNTS National Competition. The week, held in May, gave participants an opportunity to celebrate their achievements online.
MATHCOUNTS continues to focus on safety and has organized online chapter and state activities and competitions. The organization is working with Art of Problem Solving, which helped arrange the alternative online activities last spring. There will also be additional competitions (a chapter invitational and four online practice competitions).
“We know the in-person element of competitions is a big part of what makes them special. But even though that wasn’t going to be possible, we didn’t want to take the entire MATHCOUNTS experience away from the kids,” says Chandler. “They have already had so much taken away due to COVID-19.”
Across the nation, NSPE members, through state and local chapters, help to ensure that students and schools have the resources to participate in the organization’s programs. While pandemic shutdowns are necessary for public safety, the frustrations they cause are understandable, says Claire Kohatsu, P.E., MATHCOUNTS coordinator for the Nevada Society of Professional Engineers. She recalls the extreme disappointment of the four students who qualified to advance to last year’s national competition. “The kids worked so hard to prepare, and it was quite a letdown that the competition could not happen. [But] of course, we all understood why.”
NSPE-NV is highly encouraging participation in this year’s activities but with the realization that they won’t be taking place in normal times. The Southern Nevada Chapter canceled mock competitions and delayed a fundraising event until May. Student registration is 10% lower than last year, says Kohatsu, but the online format has also attracted the participation of new schools.
Kohatsu will miss the experience of pre-pandemic interaction with students, but she remains positive about providing a great program. “At these competitions, the kids feed off each other’s energy and it’s quite a sight to see them excited about math.”
Normally, more than 100,000 students participate in MATHCOUNTS programs each year in all 50 states, US territories, and in State Department and Department of Defense schools overseas. More than 200 finalists compete in the Raytheon Technologies MATHCOUNTS National Competition. Despite the unprecedented circumstances, the overall participation level has decreased by only 20%, while registrations for the organization’s National Math Club have significantly increased.
MATHCOUNTS also increased participation flexibility by allowing students to independently register for the competition series if their schools can’t support a team. Schools were also allowed to register up to 15 students instead of the usual maximum of 10 students because of the ease of accommodating more participants online.
A silver lining to all of this, says Chandler, is that schools are taking advantage of the registration allowances to give more students a MATHCOUNTS experience. “The online platform permits us to provide practice events and an extra level of competitions, so students who participate will have more chances to challenge themselves and feel the competition day excitement.”
The MATHCOUNTS staff appreciates the pivotal role that volunteer coordinators are taking on in assisting coaches and students through the program changes, especially during a time when coordinators are navigating their own work and family-life challenges and may not have as much time to devote to outreach. “We hope NSPE volunteers will continue to support MATHCOUNTS during this very unusual program year,” says Chandler. “And most of all, we hope they will be as excited and reenergized as we are to head into next school year with plans to get back on track with life-changing, in-person events hosted all around the country.”
Finding Creative Solutions
The need for outreach organizations to overhaul how they engage participants has been no different for DiscoverE. “Our entire world is changing and as a leader in engineering education, DiscoverE is evolving to meet the goals and expectations of teachers, students, parents, and our volunteers,” says Amy Barrett, P.E., F.NSPE, who serves as president of the board of directors.
She adds, “Staff has been hard at work looking for new ways to reach not only the students and teachers we have worked with in the past but a whole new group of teachers, students, and parents who were suddenly thrust into a virtual world and way of learning most hadn’t ever experienced.”
In March, DiscoverE strategized to overcome the impact of the pandemic on the organization’s ability to engage people, especially kids, in engineering, which has traditionally involved hands-on, in-person activities. There was overwhelming support for the use of virtual formats. “It is not surprising given that our community is made up of corporations, nonprofit organizations, volunteers, and educators supportive of and excited by the engineer design process,” says Kathy Renzetti, CAE, DiscoverE executive director. “The pandemic presented a challenge, and everyone stepped up, as engineers do, to find creative solutions.”
While DiscoverE staff is developing creative virtual solutions, they are also mindful of the stress that educators, students, and parents are experiencing. To help, the organization is hosting online chats for teachers to share tips and exchange ideas. There are webinars, a “Chats with Change Makers” series, and other activities for use in virtual classrooms and at home, where parents can introduce their children to the world of engineering.
The 2021 Engineers Week theme “Imagining Tomorrow” will focus on virtual role models, distance learning, and diversity and belonging. The theme was chosen because it encapsulates the spirit of the community, says Renzetti, pointing out that students are preparing their future cities for competition, volunteers are coordinating virtual school visits, and companies and universities are setting up virtual outreach events.
Another benefit of a virtual format, particularly for the Future City Competition, is that it provides more volunteer opportunities. “A virtual format removes the geography barrier. We can have an engineer volunteer as a judge or mentor from a completely different state, for example,” says Renzetti. “This change also makes the time commitment for a volunteer easier to manage as it removes any commuting.”
Each year, members of the Professional Engineers of North Carolina take full advantage of Engineers Week to raise awareness of the engineering profession. In 2019, PENC organized screenings of the engineering movie “Dream Big” in Raleigh and Charlotte for middle school students and PENC members. Last year, members were matched up with schools to lead an engineering activity and discussion about the profession with students.
The feedback from schools was positive, says PENC membership director Catie Cox. “They enjoyed hearing directly from an engineer about life in a STEM profession. Our volunteers also had a great time participating in this outreach program.”
Since March 2020, all PENC outreach programs have been virtual. The pandemic forced the organization to rethink its outreach goals, and it is working with several education foundations and members to register middle school students for a virtual activity. In early February, engineering project kits will be sent to these students. The kit will include instructions and materials for DiscoverE’s Windy City Tower activity. During Engineers Week, the students will join a video call and share their design solutions with participating volunteer engineers.
This virtual program is also allowing for more, not less engagement, says Cox. “Since we are sending STEM activity packets to each student’s home, we are able to get parents and siblings involved in the activity as well.”
DENNIS WILKINSON, P.E., S.E., HANSON’S CHIEF FACILITIES STRUCTURAL ENGINEER, DEMONSTRATES SEISMIC STRUCTURAL EFFECTS OCT. 18, 2019, DURING THE ANNUAL SHADOW HANSON EVENT FOR AREA HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS.
Because of the pandemic, NSPE-NV took its community outreach beyond STEM education activities. In May, members began volunteering at a monthly mobile food market sponsored by the Just One Project in Las Vegas. Since then, more than 130 volunteers have shown up early Saturday mornings to hand out food packages to families in need. At a recent event, Brook Demitropoulos, P.E., saw the largest turnout she has ever witnessed at these events. “Cars were lined up in the parking lot two hours before the open time because the need is so great,” says the STEM outreach program coordinator. “We will continue to volunteer at the market as long as they hold these events.”
In the meantime, NSPE-NV is stepping up its promotion of DiscoverE online and virtual resources to students and educators while members are being encouraged to participate in virtual career day presentations. “We are hoping by fall of 2021, we can be back in classrooms doing our in-person presentations, activities, and career days,” says Demitropoulos.
In Springfield, Illinois, Hanson Professional Services Inc., is finding ways to continue its STEM outreach even though the pandemic has forced the suspension or cancellation of in-person events. The firm aims to expand and diversify the engineering profession with its “Grow Our Own” mentoring and internship program for students of color and with the “Shadow Hanson” program, which provides hands-on activities to local students several times a year, including during Engineers Week.
Hanson is retooling by searching out programs that can be accessed via online learning and creating virtual workshops, says Kevin Seals, the firm’s chief environmental scientist and STEM outreach coordinator. In January, a “Shadow Hanson” event was conducted through a video presentation allowing students to engage with engineers and technical experts during their independent, at-home learning day.
ON JULY 29, 2020, HANSON PROFESSIONAL SERVICES, INC., LAUNCHED THE STL NEXT GEN PROGRAM, AN INITIATIVE TO INTRODUCE MINORITY STUDENTS IN THE ST. LOUIS AREA TO HANSON EMPLOYEES, WITH THE GOAL OF ENCOURAGING THEIR INTEREST IN STEM CAREERS.
With today’s changing landscape, Hanson CEO Sergio Pecori, P.E., believes maintaining the firm’s outreach programs are more important than ever. The firm recently expanded its outreach with the “STL Next Gen” program to introduce students to engineering and science careers. The program debuted in July via a Zoom presentation with Pecori and employees and interns in the St. Louis office. Students from the mentorship program sponsored by Vitendo4Africa, a nonprofit organization that offers programs and resources to African immigrants, participated in the event. STL Next Gen has been stymied by the pandemic, says Pecori, but there will be more meetings in the future.
“It takes different perspectives to provide solutions to clients’ projects,” Pecori adds, “and it’s important to work with the community to show that there are opportunities in our industry.”
FUTURE CITY TEAMS SHOW OFF THEIR MODEL CITY PROJECTS.
DiscoverE has plenty of ways for volunteers to participate in Engineers Week and Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day this year. The organization is hosting a special “Chats with Change Makers” on Girl Day, a webinar on how to create inclusive STEM environments, and opportunities to share how individuals are imagining tomorrow on social media.
Visit DiscoverE.org or follow #EWeek2021 on Twitter and Facebook to learn more about these exciting events.
Looking into the Future
This year’s Future City Competition theme is “Living on the Moon.” Teams will be allowed to work remotely, and competitions will be virtual. Teams will make a video presentation of their cities, and their models will be presented in a slideshow format.
Future City is looking for professionals in the engineering or related fields to participate as competition judges. Judges are vital to Future City: they score team submissions, provide feedback, and help determine the overall winners. Their interactions with participants leave a lasting impact on the next generation of engineers and problem-solvers.
This year, all judging will be done virtually. Judges will be needed for both the regional competitions (through the end of February) and the finals (judging taking place between mid-February and mid-March). Interested volunteers can sign-up for either (or both) no matter where they are located.
THE MANHATTAN (NY) CHAPTER PARTICIPATES IN CHAPTER COMPETITIONS IN FEBRUARY 2020.
CREDIT: HECHLER PHOTOGRAPHERS
The MATHCOUNTS Competition Series typically has four levels of competition–school (unofficial), chapter, state, and national. However, this year the 2020-2021 Competition Series will have four levels of official competition—chapter, chapter invitational, state and national—and four unofficial online practice competitions.
The competition has four rounds: Sprint, Target, Team and Countdown. However, Team and Countdown Rounds will not be conducted officially in the 2020-2021 Competition Series until the national level.
Math Video Challenge
The Math Video Challenge is a free project-based contest where students work in teams of four to create a 3–5-minute video that shows a solution to a MATHCOUNTS problem in a real-world setting. The program is designed to be flexible so teams can work on videos anytime until the March 5 submission deadline.
THE TRAVERSE DE SIOUX (MN) CHAPTER PARTICIPATES IN CHAPTER COMPETITIONS IN FEBRUARY 2020. CREDIT: TERESA BURGESS.
National Math Club
The National Math Club is a program that gives students the opportunity to play fun math games in a non-competitive, social environment. Club leaders can register for free year-round to access online resources for hosting in-person or virtual club meetings. Active clubs that meet regularly and/or complete a collaborative project are eligible for recognition and prizes.
MATHCOUNTS Joins the Engineers Week Fun
MATHCOUNTS has partnered with BAE Systems to develop an engineering-themed “Problems of the Day” contest for each week day of Engineers Week (February 22-26). NSPE members are invited to participate in the contests and share the opportunity with their networks!