Business Backs Math, Science Education

July 1, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Forty Grand Rapids Public School seventh and eighth graders went to camp in late June and worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. But it wasn't a week of all work and no play. All 40 middle-schoolers had fun exercising their brains at camps sponsored by Davenport University's Grand Rapids Area Pre-College Engineering Program. 

GRAPCEP Summer Experience 2007 is a good example of how educational institutions and businesses in Michigan are working together to try to attract young people to the jobs of the future, which will require well-honed math and science skills.

Twenty kids attended the "CSI: Grand Rapids" camp, which had a biomedical emphasis. They investigated a crime scene, took fingerprints, examined materials under the microscope and built upon their scientific observation skills. Another group of 20 attended the engineering-oriented "Racing with the Sun" camp. That group learned about alternative energy and built a small solar car. OMM Engineering Inc. worked with students on a bridge engineering and building project. Throughout the week, math and science played a big role, said Sandra Burmeister, director or GRAPCEP.

DTE Energy Foundation and Steelcase Inc. donate funds, materials and equipment to GRAPCEP programs regularly, and the organization's high school program is heavily supported by area companies, Burmeister said. Many of the companies offer the students job shadowing and paid internship opportunities. Fifteen interns are presently working at companies such as OMM Engineering, Monarch Hydraulics and GR Spring & Stamping. Some students are interning at the Van Andel Research Institute on a Schering-Plough Corp. sponsorship.

GRAPCEP works regularly with engineering biology and chemistry scientists at Grand Valley State University and with VARI's biomedical scientific investigators. 

"We closely partner with the VARI and GVSU," Burmeister said. "We've been planning with them for our curriculum and moving it forward as much as we can each year to raise the standards within Grand Rapids Public Schools, in general, and in the GRAPCEP engineering and biomedical high school, in particular."

Dan Armock, engineering manager at GR Spring & Stamping, said his company has been involved in GRAPCEP for many years, and one of the biggest benefits of its involvement has been the "give back" to the community. Manufacturers are leaving Michigan, but what's staying in Michigan is the engineering work, he pointed out.

"All the tech centers are still in Detroit and Ann Arbor," Armock observed. "For us, the engineering hub is still going to be in Michigan, so we hope these students are going to be an investment in our future and in Michigan's future. Having a good, skilled work force is vital to us, and we all have to do our part to help with that education." 

Anthony Guida, project engineer at Monarch Hydraulics, said it's important to expose students to real-world jobs and situations, give them a chance to check out career possibilities and experience what business is really like.

"The intent for our company is to try to develop and mentor students and keep the GRAPCEP program viable in the Grand Rapids area," Guida said. "It's a valuable program to the community as a whole, and to the kids involved in it."

The primary reason Steelcase Inc. is involved with GRAPCEP is because GRAPCEP's emphasis is on science and engineering, said Brian Cloyd, vice president of global corporate relations. 

"We have a significant need in our country for more scientists and engineers, so Steelcase is doing their part to help kids who are underrepresented in those fields to have access to the types of courses that better prepare them for careers in science and engineering," Cloyd said.  

The architectural and engineering firm of Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber are "big, big" supporters of the work GRAPCEP is doing, said Human Resources Manager Brenda Heerdt. Very few students are graduating from colleges with math and science degrees, and some are not prepared to pursue those kinds of degrees even if they wanted to, she said. As a result, companies have to hire people from India, China and other countries to get that skill set. 

"We're scared to death about the drain in talent," Heerdt remarked. "We got involved with GRAPCEP because they were helping kids learn math and science, and that's what we are all about. In the long run, those are the people we need to employ."

For the most part, last week's camp sessions were held at the GRAPCEP building behind Creston High School, but both groups took an overnight field trip to Kettering University for some hands-on learning in the university's Crash Car Lab and its Biomedical Lab, where they worked under the guidance of biomedical engineer Pat Atkinson, Ph.D. Students repaired sutures in Kettering's biomedical lab and took lessons on auto safety and engineering in the crash lab.

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