Lt. Gov. Gets First-hand Look at CCAD

Saturday, July 28, 2012

By Josh O'Leary
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds listens Friday as Zeid Qubain, 14, of Jordan, explains a project he is working on at the University of Iowa's Center for Computer Aided Design.

Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds tried on a 47-pound military backpack, donned 3D glasses to examine a computer-rendered microchip and scrutinized the contents of a petri dish in a bio-manufacturing laboratory.

The University of Iowa College of Engineering hosted Reynolds Friday at its Center for Computer Aided Design, where the lieutenant governor saw first-hand the cutting edge research happening under its roof and discussed with UI engineering leaders their efforts to engage young students in such science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — pursuits.

Reynolds is co-chair of Gov. Terry Branstad’s year-old STEM Advisory Council, a 40-member board of appointees working to boost education and innovation in STEM disciplines in Iowa.

On her tour of the engineering research facility, Reynolds met with high school students taking part in the Center for Computer-Aided Design’s annual Summer Institute, as well as many of the nearly 100 students and researchers who are employed at the center.

“Our overarching goal is to increase interest and achievement in STEM disciplines,” Reynolds said. “There’s great programs, just like right here, but we want to make sure that no matter where a student lives, they have access to those, and that’s not the case right now.”

Reynolds sat down at a computer with 14-year-old Zeid Qubain, a Jordanian student who is spending his summer in Iowa for an internship at the center. Qubain explained to Reynolds his work with Virtual Soldier Research project — a complex computer model created by UI biomedical engineers that simulates human motion and is used by the military and private companies to study the effects of equipment loads and physical stress.

“It’s definitely been amazing,” Qubain said. “I’ve learned a lot, and it’s an experience that helps me in the future.”

Reynolds said sparking enthusiasm in the STEM fields will not only channel more students toward high-paying, in-demand jobs, it will benefit the state’s economy when those students go on to establish new business ventures.

“STEM jobs are projected to grow at a larger margin than non-STEM jobs, so there’s a tremendous opportunity there,” Reynolds said. “And it touches everything — advanced manufacturing, medicine, bio-sciences, technology, financial. It touches all of those and they pay very well. We want to bring new jobs and grow the economy in the state of Iowa, but we also want them to be good jobs. We want the people that graduate from high school and college to stay in Iowa, and this will give them a good start in doing that.”

UI also is poised to graduate more engineers than ever before. Alec Scranton, dean of the College of Engineering, said the number of engineering undergraduates has grown dramatically in recent years. Five years ago, the college had about 1,200 undergrads; this coming year 1,800 are expected.

“We have great placement, including in the state of Iowa,” Scranton told Reynolds. “Fifty-seven percent of the May 2011 graduates stayed in the state of Iowa, so we’re really building the workforce of Iowa.”

Scranton said the college began to ramp up its outreach to elementary and high school students a few years ago, which has helped build a pipeline for future engineering students at UI. Those initiatives include Project Lead the Way, a partnership with Iowa State that equips high school and middle school teachers with new ways to promote engineering in their classrooms. UI also hosts an annual robotics competition, called First Tech Challenge, which Scranton said is an exciting way to get younger students involved in science.

Stops on Reynolds’ tour Friday included a new physiology lab, where she tried on a soldier’s backpack used during load-carrying tests; a 3D environment called The Portal, which is used to analyze medical images and evaluate virtual products; and bio-manufacturing lab, where researchers are looking at how to use next generation manufacturing tools to create engineered living tissue systems.

Reynolds said the challenge is finding ways to connect schools across the state with the research that is happening at UI and elsewhere, and to get students excited about the possibilities of a career in a STEM field.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for me to figure out ways to not only drive students to the wonderful things they’re doing here, but ask if there’s any part of that we can take out to the school districts,” Reynolds said.