Connecting with speed networking

Program gives STEM students glimpse at paths, careers of professionals

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

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What: nConnect

What it does: Works with educational institutions and STEM-focused companies and professionals to offer career-related experiences to local students. Speed networking, internships and mentors are some ways nConnect encourages students to pursue STEM careers.

Email: info@nconnect.org<

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Web: nconnectnw.org

Friday's STEM speed networking event at Skyview High School was a homecoming for Jake Smith, 28, an optical engineer and a 2004 Skyview graduate.

"I sat in this classroom in physics," Smith told a group of four freshman boys sitting across a table from him. "I got to travel the world. I worked on the world's largest telescope and on volcanic-induced lightning strikes. I'm happy to be an engineer."

Then Smith rattled off the perks of choosing an engineering career: low unemployment rate, pay far higher than the median income, variety of interesting work, flexible schedule and opportunities to travel. Smiling, the freshman boys nodded.

Smith was one of eight STEM professionals at a STEM speed networking event hosted by nConnect in Darin DeGrande's Science, Math, Technology Magnet freshman biology class Friday. Groups of four or five students spent seven minutes getting a glimpse of what the professional's career, the education and training required and what the perks that come with the job. Students asked questions and then the group moved on to the next table, where another STEM professional waited.

Tim Kraft, a civil engineer with OTAK Inc., grinned and showed large photos of some of his projects, including the tram from Portland's waterfront to the hospitals on the hill.

"Who designed this cool tram? Civil engineers!" Kraft said with enthusiasm. "Who determines the thickness of concrete on a bridge so it won't collapse under the weight of vehicles? Civil engineers!"

At the next table, David Smith, biomedical manager at PeaceHeath of Southwest Washington, explained the importance of designing and maintaining electronic patient care equipment that works without electrocuting patients. At other tables, men and women working as process engineers, geotechnical engineers, mechanical engineers and more relate their professional experiences to the freshmen.

DeGrande, Skyview SMTM biology teacher, says the nConnect speed networking programs help students see the value of STEM careers. He recounts success stories of his students who have graduated and are pursuing STEM careers. One student is designing and building a concrete canoe in a University of Washington engineering competition. Current students, members of the school's robotics team, are entering internships with Boeing.

At the event, the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington presented a $30,000 grant to nConnect so that next school year it can expand its programming in middle schools that serve neighborhoods with high rates of poverty in Vancouver and Evergreen school districts.

The foundation recently presented $30,000 grants to Clark College Foundation, Evergreen Habitat for Humanity, Metropolitan Family Services, New Day Community Dental Clinic and PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center Foundation.

The nConnect speed networking event is one of the Career Related Learning Experiences that will be funded by the Community Foundation grant during the 2014-15 school year.

"Connecting with them at that critical juncture is exciting," said Laura Randall, an electrical engineer and nConnect volunteer.

Back at the first table, Jake Smith was winding down his pitch. He mentioned a student in his last group was interested in zoology.

"That student can become a civil engineer and design zoos," Smith said. "Engineers always rate their jobs very highly. It's a very nice lifestyle."