AUGUSTA, Maine — Chanelle Lambert has always done well in science and math courses, but not until she was recruited onto the Messalonskee High School Infinite Loop robotics team did she realize that those subjects might be her calling.
Lambert’s experience is a success story in the state’s efforts to pull students into science, technology, engineering and math fields, which took center stage Wednesday at the State House.
The prospect of building a robot from scratch and competing against her peers from around the world was daunting, but Lambert’s apprehension didn’t last long.
“I think people just don’t know what they’re capable of doing,” said Lambert, a high school sophomore who was one of dozens of Maine students gathered Wednesday at the State House. “I didn’t think I’d want to do anything with technology, but now I’m looking to be a programmer or something in information technology. I was just looking for something to do.”
After helping design, build and deploy a remote-controlled robot designed to loft Frisbees at targets, Lambert was hooked. Educators and industry professionals hope they can replicate her experience thousands of times in their quest to pull students into STEM-related professions.
Whitney Hogan, a junior at Brewer High School, said she can understand why there is a shortage of students interested in STEM careers.
“A lot of people think it’s too hard,” said Hogan. “But it’s not all boring. You can have fun with it.”
Job openings in technology and engineering fields are projected to increase by nearly 50 percent in the next five years, which could translate into some 10,000 jobs. But with that opportunity comes a challenge: Who will fill them?
Part of the answer could be some of the students recognized Wednesday by Gov. Paul LePage with his second annual Governor’s Promising STEM Youth Awards, which were given to students from Auburn, Brewer, Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Mount Desert Island and Oakland, along with Maine’s two delegates to the 2013 National Youth Science Camp.
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said one in seven careers borne from a University of Maine System education will be in engineering.
“We’re going to have to solve some really complex problems in the future and you guys are going to do it,” said Bowen to an audience of several dozen students, parents and educators. “We know how critical you guys are going to be to our economy.”
LePage, who put education reform and job creation at the center of his campaign for governor, agreed.
“My job is to make sure you can stay here [in Maine],” said LePage. “Your job is to, once you’ve stayed here, to prosper. The future of our state is not in the hands of politicians. It’s in the hands of the young people in this room and in our state.”
LePage, whose never-cozy relationship with the Legislature, especially Democrats, has deteriorated in recent weeks, said Wednesday that instead of robots, the students could build something else.
“Next year I would like you to create a Legislature that doesn’t speak back,” he said.