SEMA, Championship Auto Shows and Ten80 Pilot a New Education Series
Among SEMA’s chief goals as a trade association is working to ensure the industry’s future, in part by expanding youth engagement programs. The goal is to interest young talent in car culture, and ultimately to fill a variety of emerging technological, skilled, creative and administrative positions. A number of those efforts also involve collaborating on initiatives conceived and operated by outside organizations, with SEMA serving as a catalyst.
The goal of the STEM experience was to teach science, technology, engineering and math skills to middle schoolers while getting them thinking about the excitement to be found in the automotive industry.
A pilot program in partnership with Championship Auto Shows (CAS) and Ten80, an educational organization dedicated to stimulating innovative thinking in young people was launched this past January. Dubbed the SEMA STEM Experience, the initiative engaged middle-school students in an experiential project built around CAS World of Wheels events in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Detroit, Chicago, Omaha and Salt Lake City. Designed to get them thinking about cool vehicles and career possibilities in automotive design, engineering and marketing, the educational forums simultaneously tapped into Ten80’s custom-developed science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum. The results of the trial program are now being reviewed by the SEMA Board of Directors.
“SEMA is involved in a number of youth-engagement initiatives, and this is an important pilot program,” said SEMA Board of Directors Chairman Wade Kawasaki, who personally participated in the Chicago event. “It’s a great example of how we can reach out to impressionable youth in the junior-high-school area and be able to actually help them formulate a desire to get involved with the automotive industry.”
More than 200 students participated in the Chicago event, but beyond the numbers, Kawasaki was most impressed by the young people’s automotive zeal.
“The big surprise for me was how many of these kids consider themselves car enthusiasts,” Kawasaki explained. “It would’ve been my guess that maybe 10% of the room was car enthusiasts, and I would’ve been happy because that is a great opportunity. But when they raised their hands, it was probably more than 30%–40% of the kids in that room who considered themselves car enthusiasts. And when they went out on the car show floor, those kids moved fast and were engaged. Hopefully, we are turning that 30% to 40% into 60% or 70% by the end of the day.”
For its initial phase, the program concentrated on Midwestern venues throughout the winter quarter. Each event involved full-day student field trips from area schools to CAS automotive shows, along with interactive breakout sessions applying STEM-based skills to automotive concepts.
“For instance, there was a section measuring aerodynamics, in which students had the opportunity to determine which car was the most aerodynamic,” said Zane Clark, SEMA senior director of education. “There was also a tire station, where they determined the best grip versus the best performance of a varying range of tires. Then there was an RC challenge, where they got to race an RC car, and they got to do a pit-crew experience, where they took the wheels off and reinstalled them in a timed scenario against other students. And, finally, there was an area where they could measure torque on a vehicle.
“All those experiences were designed to keep things interactive. They also laid the groundwork for a survey identifying their sixth- to eighth-grade demographics and getting a reading of vehicle preferences and perceptions. So questions were asked along the lines of ‘What is most important to you? Is it performance? Is it price? Is it safety?’ Then there were more feature-related questions about the products they would most like to see on a car.”
According to Clark, the goal was to get students thinking about how they would design their own vehicles, automotive companies, and what features and benefits they would include on their offerings to consumers.
Next, SEMA volunteers guided the students on a tour of the CAS show floor to “research” vehicles and the marketplace. Designated stops along the way allowed them to ask questions of exhibitors. All of that occurred before the show floor officially opened, giving the young attendees a sense of VIP access.
“They visually saw and felt the things they’d been thinking about and got excited about the cars,” Clark continued. “They came back from the show tour, broke into groups, developed a 30-sec. elevator pitch on their company or program and built a 3D origami car as a visual prototype. Then they pitched it to industry judges who included SEMA staff and volunteers drawn from our Board of Directors, select committees or networks, including Wade Kawasaki and SEMA President and CEO Chris Kersting. At end of day, there were informal interactive awards where we recognized the presentations and gave swag to the students being recognized.”
SEMA Board of Directors Chairman Wade Kawasaki (top left) was among the presenters at the Chicago event, which was attended by more than 200 students. Ten80, represented by Lerone Langston (top right), created the day’s lesson plans.
Like Kawasaki and Kersting, Clark was impressed with the skills and enthusiasm the students brought to bear on their assignments.
“The action centers kept them moving, learning and stimulated,” he said, “The exciting part of it was watching them gather in one central room to work together on vehicle design. That’s the core of the program.”
The Ten80 organization is known for its dynamic curriculum programs that help educational institutions teach not only STEM skills but also agile, cross-discipline thinking, teamwork and leadership. Lerone Langston, who represented Ten80 at the Chicago event, said that it was gratifying to see students tackling real-world applications of classroom principles in a fun and challenging way.
“We’re actually combining the STEM initiatives along with the automotive industry and SEMA in a combination of Ten80 and SEMA coming together with the recipe of success for kids learning more about the industry, as well as how science takes part in the whole picture,” Langston said. “But it also enables them to put practicality into what we’re doing with science, technology, engineering and math. In the showroom, you had not only vintage cars—your ’50s, ’60s and ’70s—but also motorcycles that they could see, as well as modern-day cars and local car enthusiasts. What that means is that kids can see things in practicality that they’ve never seen before, as well as things they see on the road on a daily basis. That helps form better ties with what we’re teaching them inside the room that falls back into those science, engineering, technology and math opportunities and windows.”
Known as a leader in indoor custom car shows and the producer of the category’s largest show series, CAS is probably best known under the monikers of Autorama or World of Wheels. Hot rods are often the heart of CAS shows, but events have also recently expanded to include competition, specialty and concept vehicles. With a circuit of 18 shows to choose from across the United States and Canada, CAS offered an ideal laboratory for the pilot SEMA STEM program. CAS’ Pete Toundas said that his organization was excited to join with SEMA in reaching middle-school students and awakening their car bug at such an impressionable age.
“The SEMA program complements Championship Auto Shows’ existing partnership with Summit Racing Equipment that focuses on promoting the automotive industry to high-school and college students,” he said. “With SEMA, we are now creating a long tail into the industry that will ultimately benefit us all.”
Students applied STEM skills to design their ideal car models for consumers, then pitched their creations to industry judges using origami prototypes. SEMA staff and council and network volunteers served as resource people and judges.
SEMA President and CEO Chris Kersting (left) was also among the Chicago judges. Students were drawn from local schools for the daylong field trip, which included a tour of all the cool vehicles on the CAS floor.
All in all, the six events engaged more than 1,200 students and 150 instructors. The attendees represented a diverse background, and attention was paid to breaking down stereotypical barriers to gender.
“We’re bringing in a lot of varied interests, and the school districts that we targeted were purposely diverse from a socioeconomic perspective,” Clark said. “In fact, we saw a very diverse attendance in all aspects of the word. Middle schools are a demographic that we’ve never really interacted with previously. Here we wanted to reach an even younger audience while they are more impressionable and don’t have as many preconceived notions about what they could do. So we’re starting at an early age, planting seeds with the middle-school program. Then we foster growth through high-school development and into our post-secondary programs, scholarships and career center to get them into the industry.
“A big part of the messaging is asking students, ‘What drives your passion? Is it being artistic? Do you like solving problems? Putting puzzles together? Or are you more extroverted and like to be up front giving presentations?’ The underlying theme that we try to communicate is that they have some natural interests already. They certainly can develop and expand those interests in the automotive industry.”
Can the SEMA STEM Experience serve as a template for other industry programs, or will SEMA expand it to other venues? The SEMA Board of Directors is now weighing those determinations, but Kersting said that, at the very least, SEMA and its partners have learned valuable lessons that can be applied to other initiatives down the line.
“The idea is showing great promise,” Kersting said. “One of the project’s most attractive elements is that it scales up well, with the potential of reaching hundreds of students at every event. SEMA does so much to help our member businesses grow and succeed, and this is a great example of using our resources to try to help grow this entire industry. In the last couple years, the SEMA Board of Directors has expanded its focus on youth engagement, going even younger than the high-school tech students who are interested in careers. We’re now also getting out to young people who maybe haven’t yet discovered their internal car bug. In this case, we saw a great opportunity with CAS and Ten80 to bring
Beyond the benefits to the aftermarket, however, Kersting also believes SEMA has helped introduce students to a broader world where their learning truly can make a difference.
“One of the wonderful things about our industry is the products that our companies are involved in; it’s the coolest stuff on the planet,” he said. “Cool cars and trucks are marvelous, wonderful subject matter to turn kids on to. And what we’ve done, naturally, is try to match up some of the STEM-type curriculum and the arts from a design standpoint. We’ve exposed the kids to that connection between the learning that they’re doing in class and a car show like CAS, and how those different disciplines can be brought to bear to make amazingly cool stuff.”