On a Saturday morning when they could be lounging around at home, about 30 middle-schoolers are sitting in a classroom, mesmerized by Bob Gaster’s voice coming from the front of the room.
A volunteer at John Deere Middle School in Moline, Gaster is busy talking about an illuminated overhead screen, which shows the image of an actual engineer’s drawing from Deere & Co., where he works as a metallurgical engineer.
At work, he uses his knowledge of materials to study how they are processed by the company all across the world.
But on this day, he is trying to inspire a group of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at John Deere Middle School in Moline to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, which many refer to as STEM.
This is crucial to the future of innovation, say executives at Moline-based Deere & Co., where a new mentoring program called “Inspire” is working to recruit young people into STEM careers all over the world.
With a shortage of STEM workers in the U.S. and other countries, especially among women and minorities, Deere launched the new program last summer to focus its volunteer efforts more strategically to target children ages 9 to 14, said Pat Barnes, program director for Deere’s global STEM initiatives.
Volunteering in schools isn’t a new activity for the company, but this is the first time it has been an official mission, tied to its overall business strategy with this goal: To create its future work force and become “the employer of choice” in STEM fields across the world, Barnes said.
“It’s a major commitment,” he said.
“We’re trying to do it a little more ‘on purpose’ now,” school volunteer Tom Hein, 65, a Deere & Co. retiree, added about the company’s STEM outreach.
Sitting in a high-tech conference room at Deere headquarters in Moline, Barnes said the company is unveiling the Inspire program slowly and deliberately, announcing its creation internally just a few months ago.
The initial focus is on the Quad-Cities and other communities with Deere facilities in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and North Dakota this fiscal year. But eventually, the program will fan out across the rest of the U.S. and globally, finding opportunities for current employees and retirees to visit schools and mentor students in STEM activities and discussions.
The Inspire program will work on STEM student achievement, teacher efficacy, parent engagement and strategic partnerships with existing STEM organizations and activities. That includes the international FIRST (Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Lego and robotics leagues txhat work with children in grades kindergarten through 12th grade.
Deere already sends volunteers in and sponsors several of these groups, including some in the Quad-Cities and even in India, Barnes said.
Inspire also partners with “Project Lead the Way,” which is a U.S.-only effort that focuses on STEM development in kindergarten through 12th grades, he added.
At Deere, 40 percent of its salaried workers are involved in STEM, with a majority in engineering and information technology.
“One of our core values is innovation,” Barnes said.
Deere approved the program a year ago, and Barnes was hired in July to coordinate it full time, although he has worked at Deere since 1981. He also serves on the Iowa governor’s STEM Advisory Council and as the current executive director emeritus of the Quad-City Engineering and Science Council, among other STEM volunteer work.
This work is important at a time when baby boomers are reaching retirement age, leaving their STEM jobs open, while U.S. engineering graduation rates are stagnant. Barnes said 40 percent of students enrolled in STEM fields drop out or change majors after the first year, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.
Among those who do study STEM, there is a shortage of women and minorities, Barnes said.
Women represent 57 percent of U.S. college students, but only 19 percent major in engineering and computer science, according to information he cited from a presentation in October by Linda Rosen, CEO of Change the Equation, at the Iowa STEM Advisory Council summit.
“The percentage for certain engineering majors, such as mechanical, are even lower for females,” Barnes said.
A diverse group of students is participating in the “Saturday Science” events at John Deere Middle School, where Deere employees and retirees regularly volunteer.
The students are selected after writing an essay, filling out an application form and getting signatures from several teachers. They also are required to keep up with their assignments and maintain grades of C or better in their classes to participate.
About 40 students typically attend each Saturday, John Deere Middle School teacher Tom Slininger said, adding that when the school launched a Lego league, 300 students applied to join the 10-member team.
“It makes us think we need to do more STEM stuff,” Slininger said.
Right now, the middle-schoolers are designing mousetrap cars and making three-dimensional engineer’s drawings just like the real one Gaster showed them on a recent Saturday.
“This tells us the material it’s made out of, its process,” he said. “This drawing will tell an engineer like me what that part is, and I can tell if it’s made to the specifications or not.”
Another volunteer, 69-year-old Deere & Co. retiree Bruce Boardman of Geneseo, Ill., chimes in, saying the drawing also will help the workers manufacturing the part.
“They can figure out how to make it by using this drawing,” he said.
The goal is to make sure the students realize STEM isn’t scary, Boardman said, describing his favorite part about working with young students.
“When you see someone have the light bulb go on and they ask an intuitive question,” Boardman said. “When I tell them, ‘You can be an engineer,’ and they say, ‘Me?’”
Lillian Glackin, 12, a sixth-grader at John Deere Middle School, said she loves science. That’s why she enjoys going to school on Saturday mornings.
“Science is awesome,” Shawn Wherry, 13, said. “This gives us a chance to apply what we love.”
His friend, Logan Scranton, 12, said making mousetrap cars involves science, physics, math and “perfection.”
“You have to have it,” chimes in Cheyanne Creger, 12, a 7th-grader on the boys’ team. “It’s just something we can come and do together. And you can meet friends — smart ones, too.”
Later in the morning, Logan approaches Gaster, one of the Deere volunteers, talking about his own plans to become a chemist.
“Does a scientist work hands-on or not?” Logan asks.
“Well, that depends on what kind of scientist you are,” Gaster answers, offering examples from his own family’s science-career background. “There are all kinds of opportunities out there.”