What began with a few curious onlookers soon became a growing line in front of Zachry Group’s booth at the Girls Inc. Science Festival in San Antonio last summer. The girls were drawn to an interactive water piping structure made of PVC pipe and valves – combining a hands-on activity with a lesson on mechanical engineering and hydraulics.
The science festival for girls ages 8 to 18 was one of the many forums where Zachry has partnered with educational non-profit organizations to promote learning opportunities in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math—often referred to as STEM subjects.
As we celebrate National Engineers Week this week (Feb. 21-27), and with Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day falling on Thursday, Feb. 25, it’s an ideal time to highlight the importance of providing opportunities, particularly for young people, to engage in hands-on ways with STEM subjects. Zachry Group, which employs about 1,500 engineers, together with scores of project and construction managers, puts a focus on STEM learning experiences in San Antonio.
A recent example is Zachry’s support of several engineering-related activities in the Innovation Station section of the DoSeum, San Antonio’s new hands-on children’s museum, which opened last year and gives children opportunities to learn science, math, engineering and technology concepts in a fun, interactive environment. Zachry is also excited to help sponsor the upcoming “Beyond Rubik’s Cube” exhibit at the DoSeum, which begins March 12 and continues through May 12. The exhibit will help kids experience robotics, art, music, computer programming and engineering while celebrating the puzzle cube’s 40th anniversary.
Tinsley Smith, Zachry’s director of Community Investment and Philanthropy and a DoSeum board member, said the company wanted to be involved with the DoSeum because of its focus on introducing young minds to things like math, science, engineering and construction.
“For some of the children, it’s the first time they’ve heard of something like engineering,” says Smith. “These children may grow up to be future engineers or construction or project managers, and we want to help plant the seeds that open their minds to those kinds of future possibilities.”
The national push to promote interest in science, technology, engineering and math is rooted in the fact that the need for STEM-related occupations in the United States is expected to be higher than other fields. We will need more U.S. engineers, for example, but right now only about 4.5 percent of U.S. college graduates are receiving engineering degrees, compared with about 21 percent of graduates across Asia and almost 12 percent of graduates in Europe, according to Charles M. Vest, Ph.D., former president of the National Academy of Engineering. So while the world is producing more graduates with engineering degrees, the market of U.S. engineers is not keeping up with future demand.
“The work we do at Zachry and many of the skills we recruit for require a solid background in STEM, so it’s important for us to support efforts to increase STEM education and workforce development, said A.J. Rodriguez, Zachry’s vice president of External Affairs.
The need for qualified employees to meet present and future needs is one reason Zachry agreed to serve as a founding partner of “SA Works,” a coalition of local business leaders focused on local job growth and career development opportunities in the information technology, financial services, health and biomedical, advanced manufacturing and construction industries. One of the group’s goals is to identify and fill 20,000 STEM-related internships with area employers by 2020.
Tammy Mallaise, Zachry’s vice president of Employee Relations, has seen progress in these efforts during a diverse 25-year career at Zachry. She now leads the team that is focused on acquiring the next generation of talent for the organization.
“These educational opportunities are critical for encouraging young people to explore STEM occupations—and also in giving them the self-confidence to pursue them,” said Mallaise. “My decision to study engineering didn’t come until my senior year in high school. I only knew I enjoyed solving problems in math and then learned that studying engineering was an option. Had I been exposed to STEM opportunities earlier, I would have been far better prepared for such a decision.”
One way Zachry connects with high school students is through participation in agricultural and mechanics programs and competitions, both to promote STEM education and identify young talent. The company has been active with these groups at the San Antonio and Houston stock shows and rodeos. Last year Zachry engaged students from two high schools to build its lockout/tagout simulators, which are safety training equipment used to teach workers how to stay safe while servicing or repairing equipment.
At the collegiate level, Zachry has had a longstanding relationship with Texas A&M University that includes specific support to the university’s engineering school. The school’s “25 by 25” initiative aims to increase enrollment in A&M’s Dwight Look College of Engineering to 25,000 students by 2025. Zachry is supporting the construction of the new Engineering Education Complex, has established the Zachry Leadership Program and has endowed a Professor of Practice within the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Locally, the company endowed the Zachry Mechanical Engineering Department Chair at UTSA.
While Zachry certainly has a personal interest in planting the STEM seeds that will produce the future engineers, scientists, mathematicians, computer programmers and technical experts in a variety of professional and craft fields, its focus is much broader.
“It would be great if a child who visits the DoSeum or a student participating in an agricultural fair grows up to become an engineer or construction manager working for Zachry,” Mallaise said. “But our focus is much more holistic because our country and our world will need many more STEM-educated minds in the future than we can hire. We know first-hand what incredible and amazing things those minds can build and create, so we feel a special responsibility to support these kinds of educational opportunities.”