Getting your children involved with engineering

By Sean O’Kelly and Ron Crone

As parents, we want to encourage our children’s dreams. That’s what we would like to speak to you about today.
February 21-27 was National Engineers Week. This is a special time in our world because engineering is at the heart of what we do every day to fulfill Idaho National Laboratory’s clean energy and national security missions.
INL is the nation’s lead nuclear research, demonstration and deployment laboratory, and a world leader in cybersecurity, plug-in vehicle research and clean energy innovation.
INL has a rich history in developing the technology to support today’s nuclear power industry, and that work continues at the facilities we lead: the Advanced Test Reactor and Materials and Fuels Complex. Every day our engineers, researchers, technicians and mechanics use their experience and education to make our world cleaner and safer.
Here’s where your child might come in: INL hired more than 500 new employees in 2015. We anticipate bringing in at least that many this year. Our business volume is growing, through an enhanced national security mission and important initiatives such as President Obama’s Gateway to Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN).
At the same time, our workforce is aging. Thirty percent of INL’s nearly 4,000 employees are at least 50 years of age.
Why should your child consider engineering? Let’s talk first about opportunity.
ATR has experiments and testing planned that will keep it busy through 2050. MFC will be there to analyze those experiments and help deploy the new technology in the next generation of clean energy systems.
There is, at both places and throughout the lab, important tasks to be accomplished.
And we are eager to show young people firsthand what we do and how we do it. In 2015, INL brought in 350 interns, ranging from kids in high school to postgraduate college students. We’d like to see that number increase this year. Here is a unique opportunity for a young person to work daily with an experienced mentor on projects that make a difference.
The need for employees steeped in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education is very real and not limited to INL.
By 2018, 61 percent of all Idaho jobs will require a technical certificate or advanced degree and just one-third of our citizens will be qualified to fill them. The State Department of Labor anticipates a “workforce gap” of 91,400 by 2022.
That gap is daunting for employers, but it means opportunity here in Idaho for our young people.
There is a great need for diversity in STEM fields, including engineering. Ensuring national security by protecting our critical infrastructure and powering the future with clean, reliable energy are daunting tasks that require input from everybody.
That’s why INL, on Feb. 26, held a My Brother’s Keeper Day. President Obama created the MBK initiative to address opportunity gaps for disadvantaged and minority youth. INL’s MBK Day at the laboratory gave regional high school students the opportunity to explore STEM fields. Additionally, INL hosts annually 160 eighth-grade girls for the “My Amazing Future Day” at the laboratory. Similar to MBK, these girls will have a hands-on opportunity to explore STEM fields.
Our goal is to make sure engineering and other STEM fields are attractive to everybody, boys and girls, minorities and kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
The good news is that’s not a difficult sell. Engineers are engaged daily in creative work, with interesting and motivated people, on projects intended to make the world a better place. Engineers also often earn excellent salaries that sustain families and communities.
Consider the engineer who designs new batteries that last longer, secures the electrical grid to keep your lights on, or helps produce the clean and safe nuclear energy the world needs to drive its future.
Consider the engineer who makes vehicles safer and more efficient, develops a safe drinking water system in underserved countries desperately in need, and ensures that medical tests are more accurate.
Science and technology education opens doors, expands possibilities and helps dreams come true. At INL, we are fortunate to live this reality every day, and not just during National Engineers Week.
With a STEM-education foundation, your child’s dreams might end up being the same ones that drive our talented engineers: to create a world that is cleaner, safer and prepared to meet future challenges.

Dr. Sean O’Kelly is an associate lab director at Idaho National Laboratory based at the Advanced Test Reactor; Ron Crone is an associate lab director based at the Materials and Fuels Complex.