Friday, April 19, 2013

University of New Orleans Hosts Third Annual Shell S.T.E.M. Showdown

High school students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics showed up last week to show down at the University of New Orleans, where University students, faculty and administrators, together with Shell Oil Company and Viva Technology's Great Minds in STEM, put on an all-day competition designed to show off students' skills.

Shell Oil has an interest in exciting young students and developing their skills and interests in STEM, officials said.

"We need kids to be interested in STEM, to be interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," said Qiana Wiggins, communications business adviser for Shell Oil. "And it's not just Shell, the industry itself needs students interested in STEM."

Building the Workforce of the Future

The energy giant is planning its future workforce, she said, and with the advent of Baby Boomers' retiring and ongoing construction of Shell's new Olympus deep-water first oil tension log platform off the Louisiana coast, Shell sees continued demand for STEM workers through at least 2050, when the life span of Olympus ends.

Thanks to rapidly developing advances in technology, offshore jobs traditionally given to high school graduates or residents who had not even completed their G.E.D.s now require technical skills, and often, two years of community college or technical school, noted Evette Torres, who is part of Shell's Workforce Development Initiative in Houston, Tex.

Together Olympus and its counterpart Mars will help to drill 48 oil wells off the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast. Shell Oil is trying to go out into the local communities and let parents, teachers and students know about the opportunities that exist and the importance of math and science to those critical technical jobs, Torres said.

"We need everything, particularly in the STEM field, mostly engineers and geologists, [but also] offshore employees....process technology operators and maintenance crafts, machinists and pipefitters...painters, chefs, people to run the instrumentation..." Wiggins said. "We have changed. The industry has changed. The demographics have changed. And we need to make sure that minorities have the skill sets and the interest to be hired."

A Day of Learning

The 2013 Shell STEM Showdown brought together underserved Louisiana high school students and students from five Louisiana universities to compete in a series of intense science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) challenges. The event, now in its third year, was held in the Lindy Boggs international Conference Center on UNO's Lakefront campus.

One hundred high school students from Eleanor McMain High School, Hammond High Magnet School, McDonogh 35 Preparatory High School, Scotlandville Magnet High School and St. Joseph's Academy came to campus ready to compete on Friday, April 12. Thirty students from Louisiana State University, Southeastern Louisiana University, Southern University and A&M College, Tulane University and the University of New Orleans were on hand to partner as advisers.

Guided by their college counterparts, the high schoolers competed throughout the day in a series of hands-on exercises designed to stimulate interest in the applications of technology and help students see the relationship between their math and science studies and the varied STEM careers, said Angel Haro of Great Minds in STEM.

In the Earthquake Tower Challenge, students built a basic structure from balsa wood then placed it on a tremor table that simulates an earthquake or tectonic plate movements. They were asked to design a structure sturdy enough to withstand different magnitudes of simulated shakes.

Great Minds in STEM tries to connect the region and sponsor to activities, said Haro. The earthquake tower challenge was "designed to get students thinking about oil rigs and what they can withstand," as well as make greater connections, he said. "'Me learning math' to 'Make these measurements'....We try to tie it all together."

The Dream Invention Challenge tied careers to the region. Each table received a career. Students were given information on what degree the job entails and college programs in those fields, as well as a scenario: Forecast an issue that mankind will deal with in 50 years. They had to brainstorm a prototype of a new solution to the problem, build it with basic materials, create a marketing plan, then present the poster and solution to the audience.

Last year, students had to design a car and ramp that would use magnetic levitation and design a car that would travel the farthest on the same input. The prior year, students were given raw materials, then had to design, build and test a wind generator, said Ivan Gill, science education coordinator at UNO's College of Education and Human Development.

While the students worked, their parents and teachers did their own experiments in a separate room, toured the UNO geology department and heard from Shell about STEM-related careers.

A Win for Everyone

Top prize at the 2013 Shell STEM Showdown was a $5,000 STEM Club grant won by McDonogh 35 Preparatory High School and Tulane University, showdown champions. The high schoolers received netbook laptops while the University students received $1,000 scholarships and registration in Great Mind's 25th Annual Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Corporation (HENAAC) conference, to be held Oct. 3-5 in New Orleans.

Second place went to McMain High School and UNO students, who all received 7-inch tablet PCs. Third place went to St. Joseph's Academy and students from LSU, who received 2GB iPod Shuffles. The Safety Award brought $20 Wal-Mart Gift Cards and Safety Goggles to Hammond High School & Southeastern Louisiana University.

"I think it's a good thing for the kids," said Gill. "It brings them here to UNO, which is a good thing for UNO."