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Society Revamps Its Image To Attract Future Engineers

The Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS), a 57-year-old program determined to pique middle and high school students' interest and awareness in the engineering profession, is revamping itself to keep up with the modern workforce.

In an age of retiring baby boomers and low minority enrollment in engineering programs, the shortage of incoming engineers has directed concern toward the younger generations, says JETS Executive Director Leeann Yoder. This is where Alexandria, Va.-based JETS steps in. The organization is backed by a star-studded board of directors, with representation from the executive ranks of top-tier firms such as Bechtel Corp., San Francisco and Black & Veatch, Overland Park, Kan..

Students tackle problems in JETS' annual TEAMS competition. Through such programs, JETS hopes to draw young women and other underrepresented populations to the engineering profession.

"We're reevaluating how we promote ourselves, taking a new approach to how we've always done things," says Yoder. Though its cornerstone competitions and school resources remain intact, Yoder says the society's dated image will be overhauled to attract the younger population it targets.

JETS' most popular program, the annual TEAMS competition that challenges students to solve 80 problems in 90 minutes, is implementing semantic changes. Rather than asking participants to solve abstract engineering problems, questions will be reworded to situate math and science topics in real world scenarios. For example, Yoder says, a traditional water pump design problem might be recast to ask contestants to develop a solution for bringing water into a third world country. By thrusting students into the practical applications of engineering, JETS aims to attract them to the field.

JETS' website, set for relaunch in September, takes a similar approach. A retooled tab called "Explore Engineering" will offer students an inside look at unconventional engineering career paths. Like the Pre-Engineering Times, JETS' e-newsletter, "Explore Engineering" will spotlight professional engineers who have applied their technical skills to creative outlets. Yoder hopes the features will give students a more realistic take on their career dreams. "We want to show students that a degree in engineering can pay off," says Yoder.

JETS also aims to attract underrepresented populations to the profession. It is collaborating with another Alexandria-based organization, the Extraordinary Women's Engineering Project. EWEP is the American Society of Civil Engineers-affiliated coalition researching the disconnect between engineering and young women. The current image of engineering "just doesn't resonate with girls," says Thea Sahr, Special Initiatives Manager of Public Broadcasting Service affiliate WGBH, Boston. Sahr is launching EWEP's national campaign. "The majority of girls are not interested in creating technology for the sake of technology. They want to know why they're doing it," she says.

JETS has fed into EWEP's research on young women. Its National Engineering Design Challenge (NEDC), which challenges participants to design for people with disabilities, is especially attractive to girls seeking real-life context. As a member of the EWEP coalition, JETS has plans to stream some of EWEP's upcoming multimedia resources onto its website.

The Uninitiates' Introduction to Engineering Program (UNITE), JETS' summer course program funded through the U.S. Army Research Office, also does its part to reel in ethnic minority youth. Between 700 and 800 underrepresented students participate each year. Out of the total 10-11,000 students who participate annually, almost 80% go on to college, many of whom indicate engineering as their prospective major, says Yoder.

Though JETS' success is difficult to gauge, Yoder says that the society's soaring interest and participation are proof of its growth. Board member Earnest O. Robbins II, of Parsons, Pasadena, Calif., agrees. "Everything is on a positive trend," he says, citing increases in student participation, corporate and school affiliations, and even feedback from JETS alumni.

Although there is no official alumni program, JETS is trying to reach out to its former participants. JETS realizes that, facelift or not, students who found success with its programs remain the most compelling determinants of its future success.


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