By Ellen McKoy
Youth Engagement: Planting a Seed
Young children learn their ABCs most often through fun activities and songs. Next come the Three Rs—Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic—a phrase first attributed to an article that appeared in an 1818 edition of The Lady’s Magazine. Flash forward 200 years and the talk among today’s educators is all about STEM.
An acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM is aimed at helping students acquire skills related to those four fields of study. Curriculum not only focuses on subject-specific learning but also on refining various skill sets, such as engaging in logical reasoning, working collaboratively as a team, and applying problem-solving strategies—proficiencies that will serve students well as they prepare for future careers.
From SEMA and the industry’s perspective, it’s vitally important to cultivate and inspire a future workforce, but with fewer than 20% of high-school students expressing interest in STEM careers, according the U.S. Department of Education, what could the aftermarket industry do to plant seeds and encourage youngsters to engage in the industry?
The SEMA Memorial Scholarship Fund has long provided tuition assistance and loan forgiveness to eligible students and graduates pursuing automotive careers. More recently, SEMA and member companies have collaborated with high schools on student-led custom-vehicle builds designed to strengthen pupils’ skills and interest in pursuing automotive career pathways.
Another leg of SEMA’s youth-engagement outreach was centered on introducing middle-school students to the aftermarket industry. The SEMA CuSTEM program—geared to children in the sixth through eighth grades—was focused on engaging the youngsters through firsthand and hands-on educational experiences at car shows and other industry events.
In putting the program together, SEMA partnered two years ago with two outside groups: Championship Auto Shows, producer of Autorama and World of Wheels, and Ten80 Education, an organization devoted to inspiring youngsters to engage in innovative thinking.
“There are a lot of natural applications with STEM and cars, and SEMA recognized that Ten80 is an expert in STEM education with an automotive focus,” said Katie Hurst, SEMA’s youth engagement program manager. “SEMA partnered with both organizations to help produce events for middle-school students. We worked very closely with Ten80 to help them understand our goals and develop curriculum for the events. We wanted to spark interest and have the students walk away from our events understanding what the aftermarket is and what could be done to a car to either serve a purpose or come up with something new and creative.”
Connecting Cars and Kids
From January through mid-March, SEMA hosted six CuSTEM programs around the country in conjunction with Championship Auto Shows and Ten80. The events were attended by more than 2,400 middle-school students, plus faculty. A seventh event was cancelled in the fallout from the COVID-19 epidemic.
In describing Ten80’s approach to education, company President Terri Stripling said, “We call it project-based learning. Our specialty is not just STEM—it is math modeling and data fluency, which is something that employers are identifying as the one skill set they wish more college students would have.”
When developing grade-appropriate approaches, one of Ten80’s techniques relied on using radio-controlled cars to encourage problem solving.
“Through a grant from the National Science Foundation, we discovered that using radio-controlled cars was a tool that allowed us to bring students together on a project,” Stripling said.
“Cars and racing work for a lot of reasons. Every kid has been in a car, and our research showed that most students want a car. It’s not abstract. There’s a tangible, personal connection to the subject matter, so we have developed a lot of our educational programming around the theme of racing, automotive development and entrepreneurship.”
Aligning Education and Industry
Most youngsters relish the prospect of a field trip—a chance to break free of the classroom and experience something new—but while a car show on its own can be fun, both SEMA and Ten80 recognized that the events had to include an educational element.
“In working with Ten80, our goal was to engage middle-school-age children by bringing them out for a car experience,” Hurst said. “At the same time, we had to have a formalized event that incorporated STEM education as a way to get the schools to approve a field trip to a car show.”
From Ten80’s perspective, it was also important to secure parents’ buy-in.
“Parents always ask why they should send their kids to a car show, so we educate them on the fact that it’s a STEM event hosted within a car show,” Stripling said. “That’s when they know that the kids are going to benefit from the experience.”
Ten80 developed a program that allowed students to experience car culture up close while engaging in interactive activities. For instance, at previous CuSTEM events, SEMA provided the kids with laptops to create their custom cars.
“We used the event to introduce Excel spreadsheets,” Stripling said. “That was a big takeaway, and the teachers loved it. This year, we gave students a quick orientation and engaged them with SEMA- and car-related trivia. Then they went onto the show floor to look for inspiration, talk with owners, and learn about different ways cars are customized.”
To encourage collaboration and creative thinking, students were paired in teams of three. Each team was responsible for modifying a 2-D balsawood car into a 3-D custom creation and presenting the finished concept along with a price tag. SEMA staff and member volunteers were on hand to assist in facilitating the activity.
“I felt like an ambassador for our industry,” said Josh Poulson, owner of Auto Additions, who attended the event in Cincinnati. “Even though the kids may not have understood what I do on a day-to-day basis, they knew I work with cars and were intrigued by that idea. Most of the students did very well on the activity and showed a lot of creativity.”
Fellow volunteer Amy Fitzgerald agreed. Fitzgerald is a co-owner of Cool Hand Customs.
“I was excited about the CuSTEM program and thrilled to attend the Pittsburgh event,” she said. “The kids were excited to be there and eager to participate in hands-on activities. I was empowered by the interest the kids showed in basic automotive engineering principles.”
“The industry volunteers played an integral role in communicating what they do—owned a small business, customized cars or sold parts,” Stripling noted. “Through aligning the goals of education and industry, we were able to show the kids a variety of career paths and help them realize that STEM is relevant to their lives while also getting them excited about cars.”
“When we got into this space, we aimed to create a spark of interest,” Hurst added. “Because the next step in their school career is high school, if their school offers an auto shop program, we hoped they would remember they had a good experience at the SEMA event and would take their own steps to move toward a really cool pathway.
“As I’ve walked around and talked to students over the last two years, it’s been fun to see the collaboration and teamwork. The students didn’t have any preconceived notions about cars. To see them use terminologies that we put in front of them and apply what they learned on the car-show floor was very rewarding. The students really enjoyed working hands-on, and I’m proud that we were able to provide those experiences.”