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UT Dallas knows STEM-love starts before the university level

by Melinda Guravich, staff writer

“I cannot tell you how energized I am every time high school students come to the UTDesign Makerspace studio for a Tech Titans workshop, and every time I talk to kids about STEM careers,” said Rod Wetterskog, assistant dean of corporate relations for UT Dallas. Tech Titans’ STEM partnership with the Tier One university is essential to the success of the STEM initiative.


Rod, an “engineering physics guy” by training and six-year member of the Talent Team, has hosted numerous on-campus events for busloads of wide-eyed students. He’s the enthusiastic emcee with a sports-announcer voice for Tech Titans’ engineering challenges, presentations and panels.

The demand for a skilled, technical workforce already exceeded supply when Rod graduated with an MS in Physics from the University of Oklahoma and began his career designing and building large optical systems for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York. He experienced the challenge first-hand when he joined the Super Collider National Laboratory (SSCL) near Waxahachie, Texas, as an applications physicist. In need of qualified candidates to join his superconductive magnetic testing team, he could not find local applicants with the necessary technical skills.

He switched to a new career focus when the SSCL closed: building a STEM workforce pipeline by connecting high tech industry and research universities. He led corporate-government collaboration programs for North Central Texas Prep Consortium and managed global university relations for Texas Instruments before joining UT Dallas in 2009.

STEM events build courage and confidence 
The STEM events hosted at UT Dallas are a popular draw for Tech Titans volunteers. “We are blown away by how creative, inquisitive and smart the kids are,” said Rod. “It’s a thrill to watch students gain confidence and work together successfully to solve problems and accomplish a goal.” 

At a workshop last year, high school students were tasked with building functioning pulsometers. As the clock ticked down, one team struggled. A young woman on the team suddenly became a driving force, the systems integrator, cheering the group through crunch time to successful completion. 

From an educator’s perspective, Richardson ISD Deputy Superintendent Tabitha Branum expressed it best while attending an event at the Makerspace: “The influence of industry professionals is instrumental in our students recognizing that their future is not limited by a zip code,” she said. “Interacting with and being mentored by individuals across career fields helps our kids be inspired and empowered to realize that they can achieve anything.”

UT Dallas undergraduate students volunteer as panelists - answering questions about what it’s really like to be an engineering or computer science major - and as workshop mentors. “They’re energized by working with high school kids,” said Rod. “It’s great seeing their eyes widen because they’ve figured out how to communicate their passion for what they’re doing.” They, too, grow in courage and confidence.

A league of extraordinary volunteers
“The Talent Team committee is a remarkably diverse group of people from different companies and experiences, all aligned with the mission: to inspire kids to realize their potential to solve the world’s problems by using STEM skills,” said Rod.

In addition to ongoing programs, volunteers are participating in a new program for transfer students from community colleges, the UTD Transfer Research Initiative Workshop. The goal of this five-week program is to support the success of these students, many of whom are the first-generation of their families to attend college. Tech Titans members are speakers and panelists, sharing career advice and encouragement.

“It’s a thrill to be a part of this team,” said Rod. “It’s working. We have a strong track record for our programs. We’ve built effective, replicable templates. Now, we need to scale. We need everybody’s involvement to steer more students to STEM.”
Ready to help us scale? Contact Dave Galley at 
dave@techtitans.org.
 

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