More than 300 high school students from around the state invaded Arizona State University Polytechnic campus last Thursday for the Making Your Future conference to advance student learning and understanding in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

“What’s your passion, what’s your interest, what’s your purpose?” asked Mitzi Montoya, vice provost and dean of the College of Technology and Innovation, to the group of students. Commonly referred to as STEM, these areas of study have been growing in importance as lawmakers and educators realize inspiring these students to succeed in these areas is increasingly important for economic growth.

“What drives this economy is innovation,” Montoya said. “Bottom line, technology-based businesses grow faster and generate more value.””

Five years ago, the “apps” field didn’t even exist, Montoya said. But now, it supplies 500,000 jobs, 5 million applications — and growing — and is expected to be a $38 billion industry next year.

The conference, the culminating event of the campus’ Maker Week, created a space where students connect with hands-on entrepreneurial and technological teachers, professors and experiences.

Last year, Gov. Jan Brewer announced that Arizona students would participate in the Real World Design Challenge, a part of a national competition that presents students with a real-world engineering problem and allows them to create a solution.

The students, many of whom attended the conference at ASU, had to solve a physics problem created by engineers, said Susan Cooper, the project director.

The competition involved 60 teams of students from every part of the state. They were given professional grade software to solve the challenge. They presented their findings to professionals from Raytheon, Honeywell, GE and University of Phoenix.

This year, the winning team, announced at the conference, was San Tan Foothills High School in Coolidge, which will travel to Washington, D.C. to compete in the national event at the end of April, Cooper said.

“If we get two more kids who go into engineering from this experience, that’s two more kids who otherwise wouldn’t,” Cooper said.

The applied learning is part of what makes this conference and competition different from a typical science or math class and part of what makes the College of Technology and Innovation different from a typical academic engineering school.

Of all the students who major in engineering their freshman year, only 40 percent continue past their freshman year, mainly because they change majors, Montoya said.

Perhaps one of the most common themes from both the speakers and the break-out sessions is that failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Experimentation, exploration, failing,” Montoya said. “They’re all the same thing, except we’ve put such a negative connotation to failure.” ”

In fifth through eighth grades, 95 percent of students are taught math and science by teachers who did not major in those areas, Montoya said.

“Most students don’t think they can create their own future,” Montoya said. “Explaining that you don’t have to do the same old thing that everyone else does can change things.”

Careers in STEM areas, especially paired with entrepreneurial skills can change that.

“For any high school student that is considering college, and even those who weren’t considering it, (this conference) puts that in their line of sight,” Montoya said.

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