Phil Cynar

It’s Imagine! Career Week in the Pittsburgh region – a time each spring devoted to helping better prepare today’s young people for their futures as our workforce of tomorrow.  Students, their parents, educators and employers will all be coming together at this time to find answers to questions such as “what do I want to be?” … “what kind of training and education is necessary?” … and “where will the jobs be?”

Here in the region where the economy is driven by knowledge, many of the job and career opportunities have STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills at their root now, and this requisite will continue.  Successful candidates for the region’s careers of tomorrow will need to be STEM-fluent (or even STEAM-fluent … Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics).  The time is now for the region’s young people to acquire and hone skills ruled by the left and right brain – analytical ability and creativity.  Command of these skills will differentiate the best candidates for exciting jobs and careers here in the Pittsburgh region, now and in the years to come.

The Pittsburgh Regional Compact – a partnership between educators and employers in the region who are collaborating to prepare young people for the region’s jobs and careers of the future – has just released its Spring 2012 issue of the Compact Quarterly newsletter.  This issue explores STEM and its impact on the workforce of tomorrow from a variety of perspectives.

In fact, we’ve dubbed this our “STEM” edition of the newsletter.  The communiqué and its articles complement much of the information and activities that will be presented during this year’s Imagine! Career Week.

It’s spring; the ground is soft and ready for hearty, sustaining roots.  Let’s plant some STEM seeds, nurture and cultivate them, and grow amazing individuals ready for the opportunities our region has to offer.

Think engineers are made in college? Think again.

Calvin Phelps, national chair of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) says engineers are built in the third or fourth grade.

Tre’ Bohannon is an eighth-grader from Dallas whose team, part of Project Still I Rise, competed in NSBE student competitions in Pittsburgh recently.

Phelps made his point at the recent NSBE gathering in Pittsburgh, which drew more than 8,500 engineers, students and teachers  to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.The organization’s  mission is “to increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community.”

One way NSBE does this is by dedicating countless hours of mentorship to students  with interest in the “STEM” fields of science, technology, engineering and math. As Phelps points out in the video interview below, NSBE hosts the Summer Engineering Experience for Kids (SEEK) to expose youth in grades 3-5 to engineering and technology.

Serving a broader audience is the Pre-Collegiate Institute, which addresses K-12 students who demonstrate talent in engineering. Elisha Clayton and Cavon Cormack discuss that in a second video, also below.

At the event, I met Tre’ Bohannon, an eighth-grader whose team, part of Project Still I Rise, from Dallas, Texas, won first place in a robotics and engineering design competition.  Many students first become interested in engineering through robot competitions, such as the recent BotsIQ competition in Westmoreland County.

With the growth of STEM companies and a surplus of jobs in these fields, our region’s students have a lot to be excited about as they prepare to enter the workforce. And NSBE – which is primarily led by college students and recent graduates – is well-positioned to help bridge the gap between younger students and the workforce.

Listen to Phelps talk about the SEEK Camps:

Hear Clayton and Cormack discuss the Pre-Collegiate Initiative:

Bill Flanagan

Congrats to Highlands High School and their robot, Honeybadger, the Grand Champion of the 2012 Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ competition April 14 at Westmoreland County Community College. I’ve emceed the finals of the event since its inception seven years ago. Back then just six schools battled. This year hundreds of students from more than 40 schools competed from all over the Pittsburgh region.

The idea is to get young people interested in science, technology, education and math by giving them an incentive to build and battle with robots. The teams have to do more than simply design, manufacture, and operate the “bots;” they must document all their work, just as engineers do in real manufacturing settings. Corporate partners who work with the students, their parents and teachers to build the best bot. The local chapter of the NTMA, the National Tool and Machining Association, brought the event to our region to get out in front of the aging of our workforce and introduce a new generation to the thrill of making – and, yes, destroying – things.

Plum Senior High School Students posing with their champion robot “Still ‘N Shock 2"

By all accounts, the strategy is working. Surveys of the youngsters who have participated in BotsIQ indicate that they’re more likely to choose engineering as a career. All of this is all the more important given the growth in manufacturing jobs in our region. Last year, more than 50 manufacturers expanded in our region or were attracted to set up shop here. In addition, manufacturing employment is growing faster here than it is across the state or nation. A lot of the same skills apply to the energy industries that are expanding in our region. We are going to need to educate, train and attract a lot more skilled workers if we’re going to keep up.

Although Highlands took the top prize because of the performance of their bot and their attention to detail in documentation, Plum Senior High School’s “Still ‘N Shock 2” won the actual competition, beating Kiski Area High School’s “Bruce Wayne” in the final match of the day. But a three-way tie for “Best Sportsmanship” is worth noting. Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center, Hempfield Area High School and Mapletown Junior/Senior High School were honored by their fellow competitors for their willingness to help other teams and make sure that every bot that came to compete was able to compete. It’s an award in the true spirit of the power of Pittsburgh to innovate and collaborate to make things happen.

You can find out more about BotsIQ at their website, You can also check out a video (below) I produced at last year’s event.  Better yet, encourage your local high school or career & technical center to create a team and battle for bot supremacy. Sure, it’s fun to win a competition like this, but it’s even better to participate in a program that’s going to make our region a better competitor in the future.

Which Asian nation launched its first unmanned test spacecraft in 1999? In which country does the Gap plan to triple its presence by year-end while closing stores in the United States? Answers, anyone?

China, and China. These questions and others were posed to the students participating in the Pittsburgh region’s  10th Annual Academic WorldQuest Competition, held earlier this year. Students from the winning high school head to Washington D.C. this Saturday, April 21 for the National Academic WorldQuest Competition.

Courtesy of The World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.

The World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that promotes a deeper understanding of contemporary international issues, hosted the regional competition in February at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland. Sally Wiggin of WTAE-TV and KDKA-TV’s Jon Delano moderated as students from 47 Pittsburgh-area high schools answered questions about international affairs, global health, geography and world cultures.

While the judges tabulated the scores, I spoke with the team from Springdale High School, located in Cheswick. Sue, the gifted program coordinator, chaperoned a team of two high school juniors, James and Zach, and one sophomore, Becca. All three students enjoyed the event and said that they would participate again, and Sue cited the event as a “great educational experience,” noting that “you never think about what’s going on all around the world until you come here.” Some of her students also participate in other offerings through the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, such as Model UN and the Student Ambassadors Program.

Adding to the excitement, for the first time ever, two schools were tied at the top. All schools participated in a final “Sudden Victory” round to determine a winner. Pittsburgh Allderdice High School won first place, with Shady Side Academy and Upper St. Clair High School coming in second and third, respectively.

As for me, not only did I learn the flag of Sierra Leone, but I was excited to see so many young people well-informed and passionate about international issues.

Congratulations to all the competitors, and to the Allderdice students, best of luck this weekend in Washington!


Bonnie Pfister

Pittsburgh’s largest conference of 2012 kicks off at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on March 29, as nearly 8,500 professional engineers and engineering students gather for the National Society of Black Engineers convention. With representatives of more than 250 corporate, government, academic and institutional exhibitors, the four-day event is expected to generate $12.4 million in direct spending.

The society, known as NSBE, is unique in that it is student-founded and student-run – from planning to budgeting to administration. The conference also features one of the nation’s largest technical diversity career fairs, which will be held Thursday, March 29, and Friday, March 30, from noon to 5 p.m.

NSBE Executive Director Carl Mack told Essential Public Radio that students’ role across the organization helps to keep the focus on getting African American kids interested in engineering. NSBE chapters at universities including Pitt and Carnegie Mellon help with outreach to students from third grade on. Those efforts are important in bringing greater diversity to the science professions. According to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article, African Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. workforce but just 5 percent of its engineers.

Doris Carson Williams, board chair of VisitPittsburgh and president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Western Pennsylvania, said she’s pleased that the NSBE conference has returned to Pittsburgh after six years in other locales. Click on the YouTube video below to find out why Carson Williams thinks NSBE chose Pittsburgh, and why they won’ t be disappointed.

Regional corporate and institutional sponsors and supporters of the conference include Alcoa, Bayer Corporation, Eaton Corporation, UPMC, United States Steel Corporation and Vibrant Pittsburgh.

Bonnie Pfister

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine yourself doing certain jobs, particularly if you’re a woman. You may automatically discount work in the “trades” – carpentry, construction, ironworking, to name just a few.

Operating engineer Angel Hodge waits for a cue to operate a highlift during work on Route 28 project.

Maybe you assume you’ll need brute strength, or that men in those workplaces may be less-than-welcoming to female colleagues. But in 21stcentury America, machinery does the heavy lifting on most jobs. As for potential colleagues, there will always be small minds to deal with. But plenty of smart, supportive colleagues, too.

Jobs in the trades typically offer good pay, health insurance and paid time off for vacation and sick leave. And you don’t need a four year college degree to get them. It’s physical work, but so is waiting tables or working in retail. All of the above are honest jobs – but serving and retail seldom offer the perks or pay of trade jobs, or the skills or opportunities to advance.

Angel Hodge is an operating engineer employed by Local 66, working for Saxonburg’s Brayman Construction on the Route 28 road project. A native of Uniontown, she now calls Carrick home. A self-described tomboy who couldn’t see herself working in an office, she did an apprenticeship to become a heavy-machinery mechanic, a job she held for several years before training to run such equipment herself. In addition to her full-time job, she is taking project management classes at the Community College of Allegheny County, with a goal toward becoming a manager.

In the video below, Hodge talks about her career and her future. It’s one in an occasional series of posts about women in non-traditional careers. You can check out previous entries here.