ORLANDO — Lockheed Martin could take advantage of young people’s interest in space, having partnered with NASA in an effort to reach Mars for years.
But for that to happen, the company must be more proactive and reach them earlier to inform them about career options, a company official said recently in Orlando.
“We need to create those connections at a very young age,” said Jennifer Mandel, a strategic philanthropist with Lockheed Martin. “We want them to dream about partnering with NASA to habitate the area above Mars.”
Early exposure is key, agreed Jennifer Kane, a technology teacher at Timber Creek High School in Orlando.
“If you get them really early, it’s easier for them to fall in love with it and want to pursue it,” she said.
Mandel and Kane joined representatives from John Deere, Toyota, Amazon and Verizon, among others, at this year’s Project Lead the Way event in Orlando. The STEM-based program brought 2,000 educators, business leaders and other advocates from across the country to Orlando. Kane accompanied a team of tech students who delivered a speech advocating for the effort.
Project Lead the Way is one program that tries to solve the tech industry’s most-pressing need: bodies. Colleges and high schools have focused on increasing STEM-based learning for years, as more introduce robotics classes and battle-bots competitions.
But if students are to someday pursue tech careers, businesses must partner with local schools and reach them sooner, Orange County Public Schools superintendent Barbara Jenkins said.
“It’s all of our responsibility to develop these young people into future employees and future citizens,” she said. “It has to be a collective effort.”
Lockheed Martin, which employs more than 7,000 in Central Florida, partnered with Orange County Public Schools in 2015 on a $2 million grant that helped the district develop training programs under the Project Lead the Way banner.
That has opened the door for students to learn more technology-oriented skills, Jenkins said.
“I am so impressed at what young people are capable of,” she said. “We believe adults have to encourage young people, coerce them, push them sometimes into tougher courses. ‘Smart’ is not something you are. It’s something you become if you work hard.”
Dennis Parker, founder of Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education who leads Toyota’s efforts to expand STEM-based learning, said efforts to grow the workforce haven’t been successful just yet. That impedes companies and also leaves some students behind if they get to college without STEM skills, he said.
“When they graduate, they are just not work-ready,” Parker said. “We need to fix that.”
Mandel said a company’s involvement has to go beyond merely “writing a check,” with mentoring and guidance among the extra efforts she advocates.
But she said the fact that the conversation is ongoing is encouraging.
“The good thing is that everybody understands that there is a problem,” she said. “But it’ll take a bit to get there.”