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Joe Carson's Vols4STEM working to reverse education trend

Joe Carson, back left, volunteers at the Farragut High School Summer Robotics Camp, providing hands-on expertise to the possible scientists and engineers of tomorrow. (Photo: Joe Carson)

It's March 12, 2012 at Vine Middle School in Knoxville, Tennessee. The students in Julia Walker's class are about to receive a very special guest.

M. Carl Wheeler, a retired engineer and Vols4STEM volunteer, is about to demonstrate the wonders of electricity hands-on. From the differences in alternating and direct currents to the workings of transistors, diodes, and capacitors, Walker's students got a crash course on all things electrical.

And it just might make a difference. We all know America's children are falling behind in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. One man is doing his best to reverse that trend.

Joseph Carson, PE, a licensed professional engineer, founded Vols4STEM in 2008 in collaboration with the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce (COC), the Tennessee Society of Professional Engineers, Knox County Schools, and the non-profit Great Schools Partnership. The goal: to foster the participation of the professional STEM community in the development of K-12 education via educators and volunteerism through various programs and competitions such as Lego League, Math Counts, and Science Bowl.

A mechanical and nuclear engineer by training, Carson currently serves as a facility representative for the Department of Energy (DOE). As a member of several professional societies throughout the years, he realized that his geographical location, split between several DOE facilities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, the state's largest educational institution, afforded him a unique opportunity. Carson was determined to bridge the gap across disciplines and academic bureaucracies to make a difference in K-12 education.

His assistance is open to any program, established or burgeoning that promotes K-12 STEM education. "We are inventing the wheel here, trying to get programs started," said Carson. Central to Carson's philosophy is volunteerism. By getting local professionals involved in the Vols4STEM program, Carson hopes to begin the long process of reversing America's decline in STEM education.

For example, in April of 2010 Vols4STEM placed more than 500 math and science teachers in local companies with STEM-based missions for an area-wide in-service day; in the fall of 2011 the organization arranged for a panel of experts to discuss the importance of STEM education and practice in the modern competitive economy at Austin-East Magnet High School; and most recently, in July of 2012, Carson himself volunteered at the Farragut High School Summer Robotics Camp, providing hands-on expertise to the possible scientists and engineers of tomorrow.

Essentially, said Carson, Vols4STEM has three legs: STEM educators (schools), STEM employers (COC), and STEM professionals (societies).  In his bid to get more local professionals involved, Carson reached out to AAAS. Essentially, AAAS will use its extensive member base to help Carson, a AAAS member since the '90s, find local volunteers for various Vols4STEM initiatives. While scientific societies may not have local chapters, AAAS has members in nearly every nook and cranny in the country.

"Joe Carson saw a critical need for science and math experts to augment the classroom teacher to improve STEM academics," said COC President and CEO Mike Edwards. "Not only did he see the need but he was instrumental in putting what has now become a nationally recognized program together which is performing outstandingly, raising student achievement, and preparing graduates for many options after high school. Vols4STEM is a model that can be replicated in any region and we have been very grateful to Joe and the volunteers who have made it possible."

At the end of the day, however, Carson realizes that not every kid will grow up to be a scientist or engineer. But that's not the point. Whatever path these children take in life, a basic STEM education is necessary to be a productive citizen, he said. And besides that, professionals have an ethical duty to participate in the educational well-being of the next generation.

"We keep growing and getting better and there is always inertia," Carson said.

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Joe Carson, back left, volunteers at the Farragut High School Summer Robotics Camp, providing hands-on expertise to the possible scientists and engineers of tomorrow. (Photo: Joe Carson)
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