Teenagers Take Test Flights in JETS

Experience in Competitions Has Helped Students Make Decisions About Engineering Careers

By Mike Bacidore, managing editor

The Junior Engineering Technical Society is quite possibly the oldest engineering education organization that you’ve never heard of.

About half of JETS’s 40,000 student participants each year come from groups that are typically underrepresented in engineering and technology fields. Those students are reached largely through approximately 10,000 educators at 6,000 high schools.

While JETS might be relatively unknown by the general public, its longstanding affiliations with educational and professional groups is what gives wings to JETS.

“We attend various educator conferences by NSTA, NCTM, ITEA, NACAC and AAPT,” says Leann Yoder, executive director of JETS in Alexandria, Va. “We are well-known by our current contacts, but we need to step it up when reaching out to other organizations. We are developing new ways to get our university and professional societies to become better advocates of what JETS does. We've also developed an alumni network that we hope will get those people that benefited from JETS programs to become advocates of JETS as well.”
One JETS alumnus, Brian Cieslak, is senior firmware designer at Rockwell Automation in Milwaukee, where he was first exposed to JETS in high school at Boys Technology and Trade School.

“JETS was the science club at Boys Tech,” explains Cieslak. “I was also involved in the amateur radio club and math club. Being a child of the Space Race and Nuclear Age, I had always been interested in science, so when I learned about JETS from a friend of mine I was excited to start hanging out with a bunch of fellow amateur scientists.”

Cieslak admits he was not aware of JETS as a large, national organization when he was a student participant more than 30 years ago. “It was a science club that met once a week,” he explains. “One of the perks of being a JETS member was that Mr. Jackland, the faculty advisor, gave us access to the science department's store room full of equipment for our projects.”

Explore, Assess, Experience

JETS encourages young individuals to look at engineering and technology as career options by offering a three-step process of discovery. Students explore different engineering paths, they assess the skills necessary to pursue a specific engineering career, and finally they experience it by participating in competitions and working with engineering professionals.

We believe that in order to make an informed decision about a student's future, you must explore, assess and experience engineering,” explains Yoder.

In the first step, students go online, read scenarios, articles and profiles, watch videos and learn about the many areas of engineering. “By relating stories and scenarios to real life, young people can see where they might fit as an engineer,” she says.

In the Assess step, participants take an inventory of current abilities in subject areas important to success in engineering. “This step doesn't rule out or verify a specific area of engineering, but it allows students to determine if they are on the right path in subject areas important to engineering success,” explains Yoder.
Students are invited to “try on” engineering in the third step. “Experience in our two competitions has helped students make decisions about engineering careers,” says Yoder. Whether it’s through the National Engineering Design Challenge (NEDC), a team competition in which students create a real-life assistive-technology device to aid individuals with disabilities, or via TEAMS, a one-day, two-part-test competition for high school students held on university and college campuses around the U.S., participants have the opportunity to take an engineering career out for a test-drive, of sorts.

Real World, Real Solutions

JETS’s big payoff is NEDC. This year’s winner, Gardner Edgerton High School from the greater Kansas City area, designed and built the bag attachment and replacement technology (BART) for an actual individual who is a school custodian with a disability. Real world. Real solution.

“He couldn’t tie the trash bags,” explains David Kling, industrial arts and technology teacher at Gardner Edgerton. “Our students analyzed the problem, modeled the problem and went about finding a solution. They tested and tested and reconfigured. It evolved from that. Steven, the custodian, now uses this on a regular basis in his job.”

Kling, who coaches the team along with chemistry and physics teacher Larry Ward and invaluable help from Stacey Heine, a retired Honeywell engineer who acts as the team’s advising engineer, explains that the recognition for winning the competition needs to go to the students and how well they work together in a variety of disciplines. “The whole competition or process uses so many different areas of the school building that it’s crazy,” explains Kling. “There’s English and math and science and physics and electronics and physical education and speech and drama. It crosses curriculums. It’s mind-boggling. Businesses are clamoring for people who understand how to work in a variety of disciplines as problem solvers.”

Old School

When Cieslak attended Boys Tech, which is now Lynde and Harry Bradley Technology and Trade School, JETS was still a relatively young organization and its program offerings were different from today’s Experience fare. Student selected their own projects, explains Cieslak, who found his way into JETS as a high school sophomore.

“I chose my first project from the Amateur Scientist handbook that was published by Scientific American,” he explains. “I tried my hand at chromatography. It involved filling a long glass tube with chalk. We then took some organic material—maple leaves—and dissolved them in denatured alcohol.” When the solution was poured into the top of the tube and seeped through the chalk, it broke into different colors, which could be used to identify different chemicals in the leaf, he recalls.

During his junior year, Cieslak took on a rocketry project. “We built rockets with cameras, telemetry and accelerometers,” he explains. “We designed rockets that met specific flight requirements to fly to a specified altitude by choosing rocket motors with the right total impulse and thrust and weight and drag combinations.”

New School

JETS also offers a summer program called UNITE, where students historically underrepresented in the STEM fields get a chance to hang out with kids from similar backgrounds and build confidence and passion for engineering by participating in a four-to-six-week academically rigorous experience, says Yoder.

Whereas NEDC is a hands-on design challenge where teams of students work together to develop a solution for a person with disabilities and TEAMS is an academic problem-solving competition, UNITE teams students with educators at nine unique programs around the U.S. “UNITE helps to prepare students for what lies ahead in the college application process, as well,” says Yoder. “Each UNITE program is unique and coordinates its own application and registration process, so students should contact the UNITE site closest to them for more information.” The institutions can be found on JETS’s web site.

Read JETS's in-depth interview with Brian Cieslak.

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