STEM NEWS

Energy Pipeline: Industry leaders join to demystify STEM education, pave path to energy industry careers
TheTribune. Matthew VanDeventer. November 06, 2017.

It was a rainy Saturday on Sept. 23, but thousands showed up at East High School Esplanade for Colorado's inaugural Energy Day festival, an effort to promote STEM education to get kids more into the sciences, technology, energy and math.
 
Seniors Gregor Owens, electric captain of the East High School Angelbotics robotics team, and Zane Molins, drive coach and strategy, were stationed at the entrance of the festival, driving around the robot that got the team further in robotics competitions than ever before.
 
An April study by the New American Economy reported many states, including Colorado, are seeing a shortage in skilled STEM workers. According to a news release, Colorado had 15.3 job openings for every unemployed worker in STEM last year. The national ratio was 13 to 1. This first Energy Day was an effort to demystify STEM and spark student interest in the possibilities.
 
"I think it's mostly because they don't see it, they don't see it happen, they don't see people actually having fun doing it," Molins said of the increasing propensity of students to shy away from STEM education. "The more it can be in their face the more they'll see it and want to do it."
 
Owens and Molins got into STEM almost randomly: They both didn't have anything else to do after school. They didn't know a thing about building robots, but they ended up joining the team.
 
Students and even adults alike see a robot and think it's the hardest thing to build, wires sticking out, motherboards secured, lights flashing, remote controls operating, a cause example of the STEM fear. "But it's easier than you think," Owens said nonchalantly. "People need to know that building robots is not an impossible sci-fi thing. You can do it at home if you want. It's doable. It's easy."
 
As the pair steered their robot, kids and adults filtered in an out of the East High grounds, where dozens of energy and energy related companies were on hand to talk about their business.
 
"One of the things that a lot of energy companies are struggling with is getting people interested in energy and getting students to understand the career path that they can have," explained Lisa Hamil, founder of Energy 360, an organization that seeks to educate people about the energy of consumerism. They partnered with the Consumer Energy Alliance and Consumer Energy Education Foundation to bring Energy Day from Houston, Texas, where it is held annually, to Denver for the first time.
 
"So this is all about STEM education and how a STEM education can lead to a career in energy — any form of energy, innovation, technology, sustainability, there's a lot of different career paths people can go down. It's just to educate people about what's out there," Hamil said.
 
Students from Metropolitan State University demonstrated concepts in physics by launching air rockets down the esplanade. Attendees could observe how sand moves when sound is applied, feel the pull of centrifugal force with bicycle wheels, and launching air-soft rockets down the esplanade. Kids could operate remote-controlled Caterpillar tractors, check out solar panels on display, and see the flow of water through faucets when they pedaled a stationary bike at the Denver Water exhibit.
 
Major oil and gas players also attended the festival including, Anadarko, which had a tent full of engineers and community outreach employees talking with visitors. One Anadarko engineer had four, shoulder-high, clear blue tubes with different sized marbles in each one with water or vegetable oil flowing through them to demonstrate porosity, resembling how oil and gas flow through rock.
 
On the other side of the tent was an Augmented Reality Sandbox that generated topographic contour lines to show changes in elevation as kids shoved piles of sand around to form peaks and valleys.
 
"We definitely want to attract kids to STEM careers, because obviously we're trying to recruit the next generation of oil and gas professionals," said Elizabeth Smith, a member of Anadarko's stakeholder relationship team. "It's really encouraging to see how much excitement there is, especially in the last few years around these STEM careers. So, just building excitement with our kids and letting them know that these jobs are actually pretty cool and science and technology, engineering and math — you can get a really fun, interactive, cool position if your pursue a STEM career."
 
A pinnacle message of the day was that there are endless career possibilities in energy and that working in the industry isn't just about rocks and solar panels, but computer science, data, programming, and even robotics and drones.
 
Officials from Liberty Oilfield Services showcased how computer sciences and data analysis is a major part of the oil and gas industry with a program developed specifically for the event. Participants jumped on a platform to measure how high they were in the air based on how long they were off the ground. Immediately after landing, data collected from their time in the air was displayed on a screen right in from of them. Another engineer, who described himself as one of Liberty's professional problem solvers, demonstrated frac fluid made with all natural ingredients such as Dr. Bronner's soap.
 
Leen Weijers, Liberty's vice president of engineering, oversees the company's approximately 100 engineers stationed on its 18 frac sites, several of which are quiet fleets made up of fracking pumps that have been redesigned and encased for sound mitigation. For Weijers, it was rocks that got him involved in energy; seeing a 6 million-year-old fossil sparked his imagination. However, that's not the case for everyone, he said. Others, such as the engineers who developed the height-calculating program for the festival, are more interested in data and displaying it, theory, or the mining side of the business.
 
"There's many different ways of getting into it," added Weijers. While the simulation at the festival isn't directly used in the field, similar applications are, such as measuring fluid levels in a tank with sonic measurements or understanding the amount of fluids that have been pumped out by calculating the change in fluid levels in the tanks from which they come.
 
Jim Marchiori, executive director of the University of Colorado at Denver's Global Energy Management Program, also an Energy Day co-host, deals with students at the master's level, but said the energy industry survives by way of STEM students in two ways: college graduates or skilled trade-workers (of which he said there are four key trades: electrical, mechanical, instrumentation technicians and process operations).
 
"There's a constant shortage of people in those areas," Marchiori said. "They're solid, stable-type jobs that actually make the industry run and you can never quite have enough people."
 
STEM is crucial for a thriving energy industry, whether it's oil, solar or wind. Marchiori speculated the drop in STEM students was because it's more challenging than other topics. He alluded to famed tale of students dropping their math class at day's end.
 
Regardless, it's up to the state to encourage STEM funding if it wants to attract technical positions and top candidates to fill them.
 
"That's why events like this are important," Marchiori said. "At the end of the day, [sic] if you want to have a robust energy or even technology or financial industry, you've got to have an educated workforce to make that industry run. If you want to attract those jobs and attract those people to Colorado, STEM education is fundamental. So it's really in the state's interest to drive efforts [around those] programs."
 
The Mead Energy Academy, housed within Mead High School, presents energy as an "arena of opportunity" but they don't call themselves a STEM program because they think some kids are getting scared away or intimidated by engineering, according to Will Pratt, an energy science teacher with the program.
 
The academy's programming includes law, policy and even photography. One student years back wanted to get into photography, so they worked with their Anadarko partners to bring with them a staff photographer on a field trips to work the student one-on-one.
 
"We think that some kids are getting scared away by the engineering label and so we're trying to broaden it and flatten that out a little," Pratt explained at Energy Day. "(We) still serve STEM-interested kids, but (we) also broaden it."
 
Energy 360's Hamil also thinks the conversation around energy can be intimidating because it often gets argumentative when oil and gas come into play. Wind and solar get all the positive attention, even though it's still largely reliant on the former.
 
She said she believes people need to talk about all forms of energy equally, because oil and gas is here to stay and wind and solar are on the rise.
 
"You need to understand the costs and benefits of all forms of energy and I think if we can get people to have a better discussion about all forms of energy and understand it better," Hamil said, "that will also help people get more interested in having a career in energy."

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