TAMPA — The Tampa Bay area, right now, has 13,000 job openings for people educated in science, technology, engineering and math and local business leaders are working to draw even more such jobs here.
Filling them with the area’s best and brightest involves steering students down the right career paths. But if students are unaware of the job options they have involving STEM education, they’ll be veering off in other directions, said Robinson High School senior Tristan Wallace.
More exposure through internships with local businesses could go a long way to correct that, he said. He and two other students joined local business leaders at Robinson on Monday to discuss the importance of STEM education and how to get more students moving in that direction.
Already, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce Education Connection program is focusing on creating internships that will actually interest and draw students and working with students on how to be a stand-out candidate for internships.
Mazda kicked off the Monday discussion with hundreds of students, explaining to them the science, engineering, math and technology that goes into building and operating race cars, something they may not have previously considered.
Using its Racing Accelerates Creative Education, or RACE program, Mazda officials discussed how many students don’t necessarily get the connection between STEM and exciting jobs like auto racing.
Mazda driver Joel Miller, who has a degree in mechanical engineering, explained how some scientists with a whacky idea to transform used cooking oil from fast food operations into clean diesel helped power the Mazda race cars. Engineers design the cars 100 percent on computers. And science tells the crew how much air needs to go into tires for optimum performance.
“What we use in racing is used to develop ideas that will some day be used in street cars,” Miller said.
Mazda has shared its program with about 13,000 high school students since last year, using it as an opportunity to open their eyes to the hundreds of STEM-related jobs they might focus on. As a topper to its presentation, the Mazda team announced it will sport a Robinson High sticker on its car when it races at the 63rd Annual Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring this weekend.
It was that same type of eye opener that convinced Wallace to major in biomedical engineering, he said. When Wallace attended high school in New York State, he got an internship working with a biomedical company, which later clinched his decision to attend Columbia University and major in that same field, he said.
But around here, internships aren’t so easy to find.
“I got an internship at USF (University of South Florida) in chemical engineering, but only because I called a thousand professors,” said Robinson senior Ariana Krinos, who plans to attend either Virginia Tech or Massachusetts Institute of Technology and major in environmental engineering.
“That internship is very important,” said senior Brandon Blocker, who plans to attend the University of South Florida and major in mechanical engineering.
Exposing students to STEM-based careers early in life and giving them some hands-on experience through interships resonated with those sitting on the panel.
“Tampa has a lot going on in the area of STEM,” said Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. “There are concerns that there are not enough young people choosing STEM careers because they don’t know about the opportunities.”
“Success means jobs in the community, attracting corporations to the area,” said Jeff Eakins, acting superintendent for Hillsborough County Public Schools. “To be a viable city and county for employers to want to come, we have to be providing the right foundation early on.” He strongly suggested the business community form a close partnership with the school district to expose students to as many different careers as possible.
“We don’t want to lose the best and the brightest,” said Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning who has a billion-dollar development plan for the Channelside area of downtown Tampa. His plan involves luring a Fortune 500 company to locate its headquarters amid the hundreds of residential and business units he is incorporating in his development plan.
Not every high school student is as clear on what they want for their future career, said Wallace, the Robinson senior. “If opportunities are more clearly presented, students who are on the fence may be more likely to move toward STEM careers.”
Wilson, with the Florida Chamber, said he is working with Florida legislators to tweak Bright Futures scholarship rules so that students could earn credits through business internships. “We think that would get more kids interested in getting in the work place.”