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Imagine if your kids could design an F1 car or a submarine. They can, thanks to Dr Michael Myers, whose STEM education program helps create a love of learning.
Designing for Boeing and Toyota, creating craniofacial reconstructive parts for kids and finessing the surfing fins for Kelly Slater… as a mechanical engineer, Dr Michael Myers has been behind some impressive world-class projects. But it’s his outreach programs for schools that we admire most. His company, Re-Engineering Australia Foundation (REA), started more than 20 years ago with the goal of influencing the STEM education outcomes of Australian students. To date, REA has mentored more than 1,000,000 students through its STEM programs. But as he says, STEM “is not just science, technology, engineering and maths; it’s about a whole set of things that you can use for a career opportunity”. This practical pioneer shares his love of STEM, and some sage thoughts on lifelong learning.
It’s about students learning a set of skills: communication, collaboration, teamwork. People are realising that just by learning a bit of maths or a bit of science or a bit of english, that doesn’t give you an education. STEM is about learning how to put knowledge together and how to make all that knowledge work for you. It’s based on analytical problem solving and communication skills, rather than science, technology, engineering, and maths.
When I travelled as an engineer, I'd fly from here to Jakarta and we’d jump off the plane and we’d have to deal with a different language, a different culture, a different set of norms, a whole different history and we had to be cognitive of all those things. Then we’d jump in a plane and fly to Japan and then to Thailand and India and Singapore. It wasn’t your ability to be technically competent that allowed you to solve the problem, it was your capacity to communicate your idea.
The best feedback [comes] when you see a child making a car or submarine and an adult shows interest. All of a sudden the kids realise the things they’re learning at school are important in life and that people are interested in what they’re doing. We’re driving kids to collaborate with industry; you see them light up when someone, say an engineer, says to them, “I don’t believe what you kids are doing; this is remarkable.” Their eyes glow with excitement; they get the bug.
I have four daughters and when No. 3 went to school, I was working on the Toyota Camry and a 787 for Boeing – really high-tech things. From my office, I could see the school [my daughters went to] and I felt guilty that I hadn’t done anything. So, I went to the principal and said, “Can I help around the school in some way?”. He said “I know you’re an engineer and we have children who build mileage marathon cars on a Monday night. I’m sure you could help.” I went away thinking, “Boeing today, Toyota tomorrow. 15-year-old-kids with billy carts? I’m going to blow them out of the water.”
I turned up at the school on the first Monday night and the kids rolled out a carbon fiber monocoque car. They had the world record at 3200 miles a gallon (1360 km per litre) and I fell off my perch. I said to one of the kids, “How did you get to do this?” He just looked at me and said, “No one said we couldn’t.” I thought, “Here you've got a bunch of kids half a kilometre away from the best technology in the world, doing this without any technology. What could they do if we gave them the best in the world?” That started it and now we’re creating projects that students can get involved in: F1 in Schools, Subs in Schools, Space in Schools, 4x4 in Schools. [We give] the best technology in the world to kids; they run with it and do absolutely amazing things.
[For F1 in schools,] we give them 3D design tools and CAD/CAM tools. They do computational fluid dynamics and fine element analysis; exactly the same process of building and designing a car Toyota or Formula 1 teams use and with exactly the same tools. They have to manufacture, sand and paint it – we get them to use their hands. And they race it. And that’s only a small portion. They have to create a display booth and have to sell themselves as an organisation. We start them thinking about their careers very early; they go through verbal presentations and are also judged on the technical merit of their engineering process. We have students who are 13, 14 or 15 years old building [cars], starting a company, setting it up, working as a team, raising money, doing marketing and communications; to have all of those skills at that early age is quite remarkable.
They start in year 7, or even year 6, and mostly they’ll go right through high school and compete maybe three or four times and then go to the world final. When they come out of that, even before they’ve left school, they get credits for university and they even get job offers: I’m talking about job offers for [the likes of] Airbus and all around the world. They start learning early and we let them continue learning and building on what they’ve got, so when they come out they’re the best in the world.
I get to come up with a solution. I'm dyslexic so I didn't learn to read properly until I was 50 odd, so a lot of my responses are visual. I can see the problem, and then the solution to the problem. I still enjoy solving the problems; that's the way out.
To take an idea and make something is not only fun, it’s rewarding – it can impact people’s lives, it can change the world. When I’m talking to kids, [I want] to get it across that they can take their ideas and create something; that they have the power to change the world.