Inside WI: Youth business plan contest offers introduction to STEM careers

November 29, 2011

One study after another has lamented the fact that America is producing fewer scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians than our competitors in Europe and Asia. As the baby boom generation begins to retire, that’s a threat to the economy and to national security.

Thirty years ago, the United States stood third in the world on a per capita basis in producing engineering grads. Today, it’s ranked somewhere just inside the top 20.

In part, that’s because other nations have caught up, but it’s also because not enough young people are choosing these kinds of fields for their careers.

Opening the eyes of young people to possible careers in science and technology is the goal of Wisconsin Yes!, a statewide business plan contest produced by the Wisconsin Technology Council.

Modeled after the nine-year-old Governor’s Business Plan Contest, Wisconsin Yes! is open for online entries from Wisconsin middle- and high-school students through January 6, 2012, at http://www.wisconsinyes.com/

Public, private and home-schooled students across Wisconsin are eligible to turn their ideas into business plans and compete for cash and prizes for themselves and their schools.

The contest begins with students or teams of students writing a 250-word summary, moves to a second round of writing in February and culminates in June 2012 with awards at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee.

It’s an opportunity for students to get hands-on experience in developing ideas into business plans. Throughout the contest, students get feedback from volunteer judges and other mentors.

If you’re an educator, you can use Wisconsin Yes! to help foster interest in science and tech education – although the contest is open to other ideas, as well. It will also encourage students to be independent, creative thinkers capable of problem solving.

Leveraging technology, thinking creatively and working as a team are all important characteristics for today’s entrepreneurs. Technical as well as business and communication skills are vital to the long-term success of Wisconsin’s youth as well as the state’s innovation economy.

“It’s all about students and giving them the kind of skills they are going to need to be successful in the 21st century,” said Greg Quam, a Platteville educator who has organized the Southwest Academy for 21st Century Excellence to encourage STEM education in rural Wisconsin. “We really need to train kids in problem solving and in critical thinking, and to be able to do so as individuals and in a team setting. Wisconsin YES! gives them that opportunity.”

Quam and other educators across Wisconsin are using a variety of techniques to interest students in STEM learning. For example, the Southwest Academy organized through Quam and the Platteville School District believes in starting young and offers an “Engineering is Elementary” program to grade-school students.

Project Lead the Way is national program that has spread to 400,000 students in 50 states, including 195 schools in Wisconsin. It’s a hands-on program with strong corporate support, rigorous training for teachers and an impressive track record for graduates who pursue science and engineering studies in college.

Other successful examples in Wisconsin include the FIRST Robotics competition, FIRST Tech Challenge, the Future City Competition, the Badger State Science and Engineering Fair and Science Olympiad. In 2011, the UW-Madison College of Engineering hosted the national Science Olympiad. Organizations such as STEM Forward and the Kern Family Foundation help provide statewide structure.

Employers in Wisconsin and elsewhere have complained about the emerging “jobs paradox,” which is the mismatch between high unemployment rates and available jobs. While about 7.8 percent of Wisconsin’s workforce is unemployed, literally tens of thousands of jobs go unfilled because employers can’t find enough workers with the right skills to knowledge-based jobs.

Science, technology, engineering and math education in K-12 schools can provide an excellent foundation for tomorrow’s workforce, especially if those students also learn how to put those skills to work. Wisconsin YES! is a tool that can help.

Want to learn more? Visit http://www.wisconsinyes.com/ or our Facebook page, or contact Kari Fischer, the contest director, at the Tech Council.

 

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