ALBANY PARK — This is the kind of news that drives science teachers crazy: Mexico has one-third the population of the United States but the same number of engineering grads. It's a statistic that's led some U.S. companies to lobby Congress to change immigration laws so they can hire more foreign-born engineers.
Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center, 5039 N. Kimball Ave., is doing its part to reverse that trend, inaugurating an engineering program in the 2012-13 school year.
"We have such a strong potential," said Jennifer Roden, a physics and engineering instructor at Von Steuben.
The school christened a new engineering lab this fall and welcomed its first class of students to Introduction to Engineering Design.
Roden led Von Steuben's Local School Council on a tour of the lab during the group's January meeting, showing off puzzle cubes that students built using 3-D modeling software.
"Half the parents couldn't solve the puzzles," she joked. But in all seriousness, the deceptively simple-looking design assignment taught students how to break down an object into its individual components and specify dimensions that would be used in manufacturing.
Curriculum is provided by Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a nonprofit established to address the country's shortage of engineers.
Students are learning how to manipulate computer programs used by professionals, according to Roden, including the same software as animation specialists at Pixar Studios.
A reference point like Pixar is key when talking to teens and adults who aren't quite sure what engineers do.
"What in this room is not engineered?" Roden asked rhetorically.
Everything that isn't nature was designed by an engineer, she said, answering her own question. "They're putting nano-particles into pants!"
Roden, who's father is an engineer, understands that teaching students how to use technology is only half the battle in preparing them for careers in the profession. The ability to communicate and collaborate are equally important, given that teams working on the same project often have members located in different countries.
"It's a global market," she said. "Our students need to be able to communicate effectively across state lines...across oceans."
That's one reason Von Steuben students will be partnering on a design project with their peers at other Chicago Public Schools, using tools like Skype instead of face-to-face meetings.
Roden is an enthusiastic ambassador for the program, serving as faculty adviser for the school's newly-created Engineering Club, which is prepping to send at least four students to a bridge building competition hosted by the Illinois Institute of Technology in February.
The next meeting of Von Steuben's Local School Council is scheduled for Feb. 13, 6:30 p.m.