Pragmatic programs attract young people to technology careers

When students at the Bishop Strachan School (BSS) in Toronto, say they’re going do some shop work, they don’t mean littering the floor with wood shavings and getting sawdust on their hair.

Other children their age might be messing with glue and popsicle sticks to build a bridge.

But Grade seven to Grade 11 students in this all-girls school – tucked away in a quiet corner of Forest Hill – are figuring out structural strength and stability, mechanicals and real-word applications.

They’re doing all this using software products from San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk Inc. – products such as Alias, a rendering tool, and Inventor simulation software.

The program is part of the independent school’s initiative to encourage more women to pursue so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professions.

In has resulted in the creation of designs for such devices as disk brake assemblies, equine prosthetics and custom snowboard bindings and yes a few bridges as well.

Such programs that emphasize solving real-life problems through technology appear to be part of growing strategy to give technology education a much needed makeover and attract students to IT and science courses.

The move has less to do with learning about technology and more about how to use it, according to Cindy Guyon, education sales executive at Autodesk Canada Co.

Guyon was among the IT professionals at the Autodesk Experience Tour event in Toronto yesterday.

Some three years ago, the 3D software firm began providing grade schools across Canada with design software tools to jump start design and build programs.

The company had been doing the same for high schools, colleges and universities as far back as the 1980s.

The goal is to encourage students to pursue technology-related professions, she said.

“We want to catch them at an early age. We want them to get their hands on technology from K to J – that’s kindergarten to job.”

Technology analysts and industry experts agree the country’s IT education framework has to undergo a major overhaul if Canada is to battle a looming tech skill shortage.

Over the next four years, Canadian businesses will have to fill no less than 90,000 new IT positions, says Stephen Ibaraki, past president for the Canadian Information Processing Society, an association of IT professionals in Toronto.

However, Canadian colleges and universities are unlikely to produce the required number of candidates for these positions. “I’ve spoken with numerous talent brokers and they’re telling me the demand can’t be filled,” Ibaraki said.

“IT has lost its glamour. Computer science doesn’t really seem as appealing to students as it was 10 to 25 years ago,” said Andy Woyzbun, lead analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Inc., in London, Ont.

Analysts believe IT’s tainted image is a legacy of the “dot com bust”, which saw the rapid rise and then spectacular crashes of tech companies from 1995 to 2001.

Nearly two thirds or 64 per cent of top-tier executives polled by consulting firm Deloitte and Touche LLP “felt it is important to look overseas” for high caliber technology professionals.

More than 67 per cent of the respondents believe the North American education system can produce qualified talent but not in the quantity they need.

While analysts perceive the talent pool as half empty, Autodesk’s Guyon sees it as half full.

“I don’t think children are moving away from technology. They are just approaching and using it in a different way.”

For example, she said, students are less engaged in learning how a computer works at school because they get that sort of exposure back home today.

Kids are more interested in how they can apply technologies such as Web 2.0 tools to their lives, said Guyon.

This is precisely the type of activity being encouraged at schools such as BSS, according to Robert Steadman, head of the applied sciences and design technology program at the school.

In an institution that has “girls can do anything” for a motto, Grade 7 students learn to use Autodesk Inventor to build 3D models of various structures on their computers.

At Grade 8, their computer aided design (CAD) skills are developed using AutoCAD by adding mechanism and motion components to their designs. Professional engineers are regularly invited to the school to critique and provide feedback on the girls’ work.

By Grade 11, design and, motion and mechanism all come together in the production of digital prototypes that were designed to solve real-life problems, said Steadman.

Digital data of the prototypes are fed to the school’s Dimension 3D printer from Stratasys Inc. of Eden Prairie, Min. The printer melts layers upon layers of plastic to produce a physical mock-up of the design.

“Our girls still do old school wood work with lathes but that’s just to give them the feel for the tools. But this (IT-based) process helps them see and experience how technology is used by professionals in the real world.”

He said one student created a snowboard binding designed specifically for her snowboarding style.

A love for horses was the inspiration behind the design created by Nastasia Nianiaris. Riley, her horse was getting on in years and having difficulty walking.

She used the CAD software and 3D printer to develop a proposed prosthetic limb for horses.

Nastasia also loved drawing horses which led her to develop a Web site where she could showcase her work. She was later asked to develop a Web site for a golf charity that her father was involved with.

“I want to know how things work. It’s important to me to understand why things work the way they do,” she said.

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