Problem Solvers
Problem Solvers
Problem Solvers
8 minute read

By 2018 there will be 1.2 million job openings in STEM related fields in the United States and a significant shortage of applicants to fill them. Companies, non-profits and educational institutions are mobilizing to fill the gaps by engaging kids in creative STEM experiences in and outside of classrooms.

Shaping the next generation of engineers is about more than recruiting the best science and math students from top-notch schools. It’s about empowering communities to engage today’s youth in the wonder of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) so they can solve the world’s most complex problems.

By 2018, the federal government says, there will be 1.2 million job openings in STEM-related fields in the United States and a significant shortage of qualified applicants to fill them. The need to address this abyss has mobilized companies, nonprofits and educational institutions nationwide to step up to develop a pipeline of future graduates.

In partnership with its clients and community partners, Burns & McDonnell is doing its part by educating teachers and engaging students in life experiences that sharpen their interests, hone their skills and engage them in STEM.

“There is a great need for this in our country,” said Emily Rhoden, education and outreach coordinator at Burns & McDonnell. “It’s not complex. We are simply bridging a gap between the education world and corporate world in a way that lets students better understand what we mean when we talk about technical problem-solving, experiencing firsthand where a STEM path would lead them.”

STEM Flows Through Communities in Unexpected Ways

On the surface, a sewer overflow control program in Kansas City, Kansas, might not sound very interesting to a bunch of high schoolers. But it proved pretty fascinating to students participating in a six-week summer camp all about water.

The annual summer program is part of the Kansas City Kansas Public Schools’ engineering academy supported by Project Lead the Way, which teaches participants the many facets of engineering and opportunities in the field. This year, the district partnered with Burns & McDonnell and the firm’s longtime client, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, to offer aspiring engineers a unique experience.

During the program, students learned the differences between drinking water and wastewater and the systems designed to carry them throughout the city. Each week involved a new adventure. They visited drinking water and wastewater treatment plants and took part in hands-on lessons in catchment labeling throughout the city. One day they built their own water filters.

But the goal of the camp is about more than exciting students about science and engineering, says Trenton Foglesong, director of the water pollution control division of public works for the Unified Government of Wyandotte and Kansas City.

It’s about showing them the breadth of what STEM entails while supporting the community.

The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, continues to renew its aging wastewater infrastructure and is finalizing a plan to address overflows in its wastewater system. Under a Partial Consent Decree approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Justice in March 2013, the UG has until Sept. 30 of this year to develop and submit a sustainable Integrated Overflow Control Plan (IOCP) to the EPA for review and approval.

Acting as the UG’s program manager, Burns & McDonnell assisted in negotiations with the EPA and helped develop multiple strategies for complying with regulations and development of the IOCP. The strategies include initially constructing several early action wastewater infrastructure projects while the IOCP is being developed. A future wastewater infrastructure investment of about $200 million over a 10-year period is also being considered for the IOCP based on the completion of a financial capabilities assessment, community stakeholder input, and other studies.

Government officials hope to use implementation of the IOCP as an opportunity to help build up the community and labor force in Wyandotte County, where median household income and the employment rate are well below the national average.

“STEM isn’t just being an engineer,” says Sara Goebel, who works in the Water Group at Burns & McDonnell. “There are lots of people outside of engineering who are important parts of this project who also work in STEM fields.”

Among them are plant operators, maintenance and construction workers, field assessors, scientists and technicians who are critical to such success.

If there are ways we can spark an interest in some of these kids to find STEM jobs in their community, that’s a win for all of us.

Waldo Margheim, a department manager at Burns & McDonnell

Delivering a Whole New Baseball Experience

STEM workers drive the nation’s innovation and competitiveness by generating new ideas, new companies and new industries.

Yet while the number of jobs requiring STEM skills is growing rapidly worldwide, the U.S. lacks graduates working in those fields, which are responsible for more than 50 percent of the nation’s sustained economic growth.

Only about 20 percent of those who do have STEM-related degrees are working in those fields.

These are among the many reasons that engaging kids creatively in STEM is so important.

That’s not a problem in Kansas City, Missouri, where the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority — a longtime client of Burns & McDonnell — turned to baseball to illustrate the importance of engineering and architecture.

Kauffman Stadium, home to Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Royals, is world famous for its winning team but also for its fountains. High schoolers attending Engineering U, a summer academy hosted by the firm, got an up-close look this summer at the intricate piping and electrical systems that make them work.

“They may never watch a baseball game the same again,” says Justin Rogers, an architect at Burns & McDonnell.

Jake Woods, 18, was fascinated by the complexities of the fountains and the systems designed to keep them running while minimizing waste and avoiding spraying the players on the field.

“It’s not something most people would want to see, but we couldn’t be more excited to see how it all worked,” Woods says.

The students also toured the stadium’s chilled electrical rooms; learned what it takes to maintain the structural integrity of the 10-stories-tall Crown Vision HD scoreboard; and discovered the complex, French-style drainage system that keeps water off the field during heavy rainfalls.

“Many of them had questions related to the civil side of what engineers do,” Rogers says. “But the tour also covered so many lessons in structural, mechanical and electrical engineering.”

The same is true for demonstrations conducted during Engineering U by Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L), which has partnered with Burns & McDonnell on projects for decades.

Using old utility poles, transformers and equipment, the company built a traveling “hot trailer” that simulates a 7,200-volt transmission line. During his demonstration, Shawn Spiwak, a KCP&L journeyman, intentionally blew a fuse that sounded like a shotgun, sending a rippling shock through the crowd. Following safety protocols, he then set a rope on fire for effect and blew up a hot dog to simulate injuries he sustained while working on a similar transmission line years ago.

“Having lost an arm, leg and a ring finger, he’s very lucky to be alive, and his lessons are very valuable on many levels,” says Sarah Carr, who works in the Global Facilities Group at Burns & McDonnell.

The purpose of the KCP&L demonstration is to highlight the importance of electrical safety and have lasting impacts on participants. But it also provides great insight for students interested in STEM.

“Probably the hardest part of electrical engineering is trying to visualize the electricity and exactly how it works,” Carr says. “Everything an engineer does impacts this kind of system and every person on the back end.”

38% of college students who start with a STEM major do not graduate with a STEM degree.

Source: National Math & Science Initiative

Partnerships Pump Up STEM Initiatives

As organizations rise to the challenge of building a bigger STEM presence in the U.S., they are turning to partnerships to develop new and impactful ways to make a difference.

Beyond volunteering and donating money, Burns & McDonnell has begun working with some of the nonprofits, schools and universities it supports to partner on STEM initiatives in the communities it serves nationwide.

In Wallingford, Connecticut, Burns & McDonnell partners with Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) in support of Tech It Out, a series of fun and challenging technical workshops for students in grades three through 12.

CCSU’s summer program helps youths navigate the world’s digital society in preparation for the global workplace by sharpening their technical skills and know-how.

Participants engage in interactive opportunities with instruction from experts in the field, including faculty from the School of Engineering, Science and Technology along with CCSU alumni and area teachers.

Burns & McDonnell staffers also volunteer during the camp and at other STEM-related initiatives driven by the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford.

“We all have an obligation to help the communities in which we work,” says John Stevenson, a staff mechanical engineer at Burns & McDonnell. “We do that with our projects, but we have a responsibility to do it for our citizens by educating them, by finding ways to get involved and make a difference.”

Based in Fort Worth, Texas, Stevenson has been a STEM mentor since starting a robotics program at his high school and teaching a science camp before attending college nearly 10 years ago.

Now he volunteers with the ACE Mentor Program, a nonprofit in which mentors help prepare high school students for careers in design and construction, and a platform to receive scholarships in those fields at colleges or vocational schools.

Stevenson recently tasked his group of ACE students to design improvements at a battered women’s shelter that would make the space more inviting, more energy efficient and ADA compliant. The shelter used the designs to make changes that have benefited its clients.

“We’ve got to reach these kids early on and show them how to work a project from beginning to end,” Stevenson says. “Then they can see how one project ties back to them and their problem-solving skills benefitted the community.”

In Griffin, Georgia, the city partners with Burns & McDonnell to spark STEM interests in students in underprivileged schools. Their work together is twofold. Joseph Johnson, a Griffin public works administrator, educates students on water and wastewater and how it gets to and from their homes. Burns & McDonnell engineers back him up by participating in various activities and programs.

Their latest project involved judging water towers built by students. The towers were scored on structure, functionality and aesthetics.

“So much of their work was really well done,” says Rebecca Clay, a project manager at Burns & McDonnell, who can relate to some of the students who are shoo-ins for STEM careers and don’t yet know it.

As a kid, she excelled in science and math. But she also loved and was really good at writing. It wasn’t until she built a refrigerator for an eighth-grade project that her course was set to become an engineer.

“My teacher told me point blank that I needed to be an engineer,” she says. “I was so shocked because I didn’t think I’d done anything special. But I did listen to her.”

Clay didn’t know what kind of engineer she would be.

“I just embraced the journey,” she says.

Educators Are Key to Making STEM Cool

Recognizing that every organization can’t reach every student — while one teacher can reach hundreds — educators more and more are being asked to take on the responsibility of shepherding students into STEM careers.

But how?

Burns & McDonnell is engaging educators to better understand STEM fields through an annual Educators Summit. The one-day conference draws hundreds of educators to the world headquarters, where they join the staff to discuss and discover ways to engage their students in STEM careers.

“In a time when education is under the gun and too many people have negative suggestions, Burns & McDonnell is asking ‘How can we help?’ ” says Glenda Connelly, a high school science teacher.

The summit grew from conversations, ideas and relationships developed with teachers during the Burns & McDonnell Battle of the Brains, one of the nation’s most robust STEM competitions. During the competition, schools are invited to compete for a share of a $155,000 grant by working in teams to brainstorm and design the next great exhibit at Science City in Kansas City, Missouri.

Professionals from Burns & McDonnell mentor students throughout the process and judge the entries. The Burns & McDonnell Foundation, in conjunction with the firm’s architects, engineers and builders, has built three of the winning interactive exhibits for Science City, valued at more than $2 million. A fourth is on the way.

“Through all of our interactions during Battle of the Brains, we discovered that teachers want to help identify students who would thrive in STEM careers,” says Julee Koncak, director of the Burns & McDonnell Foundation. “By showing them what we do and providing resources and tools, we hope they’re better able to open their students’ minds to the possibilities of STEM.”

Stepping Up for STEM Across the United States

Students and educators across the country are eager to engage in STEM topics. This map offers a small sampling of programs and partnerships as Burns & McDonnell reaches out and works to inspire tomorrow’s leaders from coast to coast.

  1. San Diego, California: Volunteering with Girls Inc., a nonprofit focused on empowering girls, for a contest to build robots using plastic cups. 
  2. Dallas, Texas: Volunteering with the ACE Mentor Program, which introduces high school juniors and seniors to career opportunities in architecture, construction and engineering.
  3. Houston, Texas: Hosting employees’ kids of all ages for Bring Your Child to Work Day, which includes engineering-themed activities to engage younger minds.
  4. Kansas City, Kansas: Partnering with the city and school district on a summer program during which students visited water treatment plants and learned about water infrastructure.
  5. St. Louis, Missouri: Hosting high school and college job shadow days, where students learn about successful projects and spend time shadowing an engineer one-on-one.
  6. Griffin, Georgia: Partnering with the city of Griffin, Georgia, to judge a water tower contest for students in underprivileged schools, helping spark interest in STEM topics.
  7. Hartford, Connecticut: Introducing engineering students from Hartford Magnet School to an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and analyzing data transmitted to an iPad.

Read more about our commitment to STEM education >

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Emily Rhoden Education Outreach Coordinator 816-839-4590
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