June 20, 2023

Getting Students Excited about STEM

By Ed Rutkowski

“We learn the most when we fail”: this was the reason Fredi Lajvardi’s underwater robotics team from a disadvantaged high school entered a university-level competition. They weren’t trying to win; they just wanted to learn as much as they could. Going up against the likes of MIT, they figured to learn a lot.

At the time—the year was 2004—Lajvardi had taught at Carl Hayden high school in Phoenix for 16 years. The school had one of the largest Spanish-speaking student populations in the United States, and the vast majority qualified for the National School Lunch Program. Over the years, many of Lajvardi’s students had told him they were the first in their families to graduate high school. Through an after-school technology club he’d introduced dozens of kids to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and for a while, groups had competed in electric vehicle and robotics events. But none of them had ever built an underwater robot. As Lajvardi explained during his closing session address, “The only tools we had were the scientific method and common sense.”

Their lack of experience turned out to be an asset. Unencumbered by preconceived notions of what an underwater robot was supposed to be, they eschewed the poolside rigs and heavy electrical cables used by other teams, powering their entry with a lightweight, on-board battery designed to last no longer than the length of the competition; this design gave their robot a crucial advantage in mobility. Having spent some of their formative years in Mexican schools, Lajvardi’s students were comfortable with the metric system, a facility that served them well in the presentation portion of the competition. When their robot sprung a leak, they plugged it with a tampon. Competition officials were so impressed by this out-of-the-box thinking they invented a “judges’ award” to recognize it. In addition to the top prizes in design and technical writing, the team placed first overall.

Their stunning victory is the quintessential underdog story. It was told and retold in a major magazine article, a book, and not one but three movies: the documentary Underwater Dreams, the IMAX film Dream Big, and the motion picture Spare Parts starring George Lopez and Marisa Tomei. But it wouldn’t have been possible without Lajvardi’s singular ability to get teenagers excited about STEM. Long before their story captivated audiences, Lajvardi proved adept at capturing his students’ imaginations.

He has turned this talent into a new career with the Si Se Puede Foundation, an organization that provides underserved students opportunities to develop skills and interests in STEM-related areas. Recently, the Foundation formed an all-female underwater robotics team, in part to challenge the male-dominated culture prevalent in engineering fields.

Lajvardi’s successes are of obvious interest to industrial hygienists looking for ways to introduce young people to the OEHS profession. At AIHce, Lajvardi told his audience that they needed to be involved in their communities if they wanted to engage with younger people. He suggested that OEHS professionals volunteer to serve as safety inspectors for high school robotics competitions, a role that would allow them to interact with young people and tell them about occupational health and safety.

But his main message was the value of diversity. Many of the kids he’s helped were overlooked because of their class, their gender, or their race, and they have taught him that the key to group success, especially in STEM fields, is accommodating as many perspectives as possible. “The more different points of view you have,” he said, “the more chance you have of finding the best solution.”

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist.

Read more coverage of AIHce EXP 2023.