Steve Welby – “Attracting the Next Generation of STEM Professionals”

Stephen Welby is the Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Prior to joining IEEE, in 2015 Stephen was nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the US Senate as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. In this role, he served as the chief technology officer for the U.S. Department of Defense, leading one of the largest and most complex research, development, and engineering organizations in the world.

On 18 June 2019, Steve sat down to share his thoughts on the importance of mentoring today’s youth on STEM subjects in the webinar,  “How IEEE Uses STEM eMentoring to Help Inspire the Next Generation of Engineers”. In this three-part series, we share the highlights and key points from the event.

To access the webinar, and other relevant links, please view the Resources section at the end of this article.

Professional societies like IEEE are invested in the next generation of STEM professionals. In attracting students to choose STEM paths, what challenges do you see from the IEEE perspective?

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) are going to be critical to our collective future, to our economic future, and to solving the major problems that face mankind. It’s enormously critical for our society that we attract capable and devoted young people to these professions.

But we are missing a large part of the qualified potential future STEM professionals. Today, many groups are underrepresented in the engineering professions. And we are probably not doing enough to reach out to those young people and to convince them that STEM will be attractive and appealing professions.

Part of the issue is that today many groups, in particular, women and minorities, are underrepresented in many technical fields. That means that there aren’t role models for our young people to look up to.

It’s important for organizations, like IEEE, to provide role models and mentors to today’s youth so that they can look up to and recognize that STEM is going to be a welcoming and fulfilling field for them to participate in.

What are some of the ways we can address these challenges?

It is critical that we are thinking about these issues early in a young person’s exposure to STEM. Attitudes towards these professions are solidified early in life. People think that this is not for them. That they aren’t good at this. They say that, “These are the kind of fields that others go into but not people like me.”

It is important that we break down those barriers. That we allow young people to see that these are welcoming professions. That these are areas they can identify with and will allow them to contribute.

Part of that is career awareness – helping young people understand what STEM careers are. That they are not just people in white lab coats on TV, but they are the practical builders of the things around them and the designers of future capabilities. That STEM professionals are helping cure diseases, address hunger, and allow people to live together in peace. That these careers encompass a wide variety of activities across the engineering professions, whether it is electrical or civil or mechanical or other science and mathematical professions. That it covers an enormous scope of areas and enormous opportunities to match interests and talents to the needs of the profession.

It is important for them to see that there are opportunities out there.  That these aren’t just things that they can aspire to do, but that they can actually achieve. That there are opportunities and programs that can help them pursue STEM education and employment.

The TryEngineering Together program addresses these needs with a focus on eMentoring. With so many well-known benefits for face-to-face mentoring, what makes virtual mentoring different?

Face-to-face mentoring is important. IEEE supports it. Our employees, of course, and IEEE volunteers around the world are engaged in programs to bring capabilities into their local schools.

But there are limitations to face-to-face mentoring. First, you must be proximate to the student.  You must be there physically; you must be there on time.  eMentoring is an interesting idea, because it allows us to break down those barriers of time and location. It allows professionals wherever they are to be able to reach out and engage with a student.

eMentoring allows students to use electronic means to engage, ask questions, and have a dialogue with their mentors. Rather than having to lose time getting up and going someplace, eMentoring allows those who are engaged with students too, in the course of their busy day, take time out appropriately to be able to engage with students from their desk or from their home. It works much better with the flow of both the student’s day and the mentor’s day.

One-on-one engagement is really important. But frankly, in many cases, we just don’t have enough mentors to go around. And the electronic mentoring enables scale in an interesting way.  eMentoring allows those who are willing to volunteer to be able to touch a larger number of students, touch their curriculum more directly and maybe make a bigger difference.

eMentoring is also quite sustainable. The feedback we get from face-to-face programs is often that there is burnout. Folks are excited; they get engaged. But the demand in time and energy often wears on mentors. And students have expectations that they are going to see their mentors on a regular basis. Life gets in the way. eMentoring programs are much more flexible by allowing students and mentors to engage in a way that fits the changes in their lives. It’s a natural way. It’s how we engage in the business world. It’s how young people are engaged today electronically online as well.