By: Kelly de la Torre Issue: Transformation Section: Business
National Grid’s Commitment to STEM Education
How often do strategic, results-driven business objectives fully align with the right thing to do in the community?
At National Grid, natural gas and electricity are delivered to more than eight million customers in the Northeast every day, as well as to an additional eleven million customers in Great Britain. At the same time, National Grid is passionate about building long-term sustainability for the energy infrastructure because they are physically connected to customers via a pipe or a wire, thereby making long-term sustainability an important factor in doing business.
That's why they believe, indeed they know, that building sustainable networks and systems starts with attracting and developing the best ideas and people in the communities National Grid serves.
They call it Engineering Our Future. It’s all about how the organization can attract young people to careers in engineering and other technical degrees. To make it work, they are committed to focusing a significant portion of their community investment on building a qualified, engaged and successful engineering workforce.
Studies prove that students, especially younger children, simply do not understand what it means to be an engineer. Few truly grasp the exciting experiences that engineers have, the cool inventions they create, the difficult problems they solve, or the significant impact they have on society. Unless they happen to have an engineer as a parent or other close person in their life, many believe that engineers are nerds who do math problems all day. That simply isn’t true!
Through its corporate citizenship initiatives, employee volunteerism and internal leadership and development activities, National Grid has created a comprehensive program dedicated to advancing this cause. Engineering Our Future has three related goals—to inspire, attract and develop future engineers. They have invested more than $3 million over the past few years in the program to target students of all ages and backgrounds to encourage them to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
On the one hand, it’s a completely self-serving strategy as they work to build and enhance the future workforce and ensure they have the right skills to accomplish their sustainability and stewardship mission. On the other hand, it brings massive benefits to the children they are affecting and the teachers supporting them. Everyone wins.
For example, there is a fourth grade class in central Massachusetts, which like dozens of other classrooms in the service territory across Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island, have tapped into National Grid’s Engineering Our Future website and found a series of in-class programs and materials aimed at teachers and their students. For the younger ages, the Energy Explorer portion of their website provides free curriculum-based resources for elementary and middle school students. The site appeals to both teachers and students and encourages students to learn about electricity, natural gas, energy conservation, the environment and safety through interactive games, experiments and stories. Thousands of children have taken advantage of the Energy Explorer tools, and more than 2,000 students have participated in the program directly with National Grid personnel.
In the case of the central Massachusetts classroom, the teacher has downloaded e-books, supplemental teaching guides and printable activities for her students. And although the materials are freestanding and fun on their own, employee volunteers from National Grid visit the classroom to assist in the learning process—including bringing all of the typical protective clothing that their electric line workers wear such as hard hats and bulky rubber gloves. During these in-class activities, students can learn about restoring power after a storm and can role-play while wearing the clothes and using a clothesline representing the electric line. Students also learn about energy efficiency efforts they can try at home and witness an electric meter spin when connected to an incandescent light bulb versus a fluorescent bulb.
Simple but meaningful lessons like this make an impression on the students about key focus areas—electrical and natural gas safety, energy efficiency and the environment. And through it all, National Grid and the teacher make multiple references to the importance of the STEM subjects in ultimately pursuing engineering-related careers. Second, when it comes to inspiring young children about STEM and technical careers, the rubber actually meets the road when National Grid engages with students approaching graduation and, therefore, entering the workforce. In fact, they have two specific programs to attract and develop aspiring engineers. The Engineering Pipeline Program is a six-year program aimed at high school juniors with an interest in STEM subjects and, specifically, an engineering career. The company is about to enroll its third class of promising students and is eager to see the full benefit of this unique program in a few short years.
In short, qualified students apply to enroll in the program and are then given the opportunity to gain exposure to engineering and the utility industry through a combination of instruction in and out of the classroom, site visits and research projects. National Grid pays them for six summer internships, assigns them an engineering mentor, gives them chances to job shadow in a “day in the life” of a future colleague, connects them to other similar students through social networking, and even gives them opportunities to advise younger members of the program as they move through the “pipeline.”
In addition to supporting some 40 to 50 students each year through four-year engineering degree programs, the goal is to provide them with a job upon successful completion of the program six years later. And the early results are positive—interest and applications are high, the quality of the students is impressive and even existing employees are getting excited by the promise of this new group of future employees.
In addition to the Engineering Pipeline Program, National Grid also works in partnership with local community colleges on the Energy Utility Technology program (EUT). The EUT, launched four-plus years ago, aimed to compile curriculum used by six local community colleges and offered to students seeking two-year technical degrees. In that time, nearly 400 students have received a technical certificate signaling successful completion of their tailored curriculum, and more than 100 students have been hired by National Grid in technical positions. “To know that we’ve created and shaped the learning of a population of future employees is not only gratifying, but strategically important to us,” says Marcy Reed, president of National Grid.
National Grid is incredibly excited about Engineering Our Future and the opportunities they are offering to students from elementary school through college. “It may be the right thing to do in the community, but it is also helping us meet our strategic, results-driven business objectives. We recognize that it is only a small part of what must be done to rebuild the national engineering workforce,” Reed says.
We need other corporations, government, education systems and nonprofits to band together and contribute to the effort. It may seem like a daunting challenge, but we must keep in mind the historic importance of the end goal. For as long as people have used tools, we have depended on engineers to figure out new ways to explore, improve and build our world. What the next generation of engineers will give us is unknowable. Investing in engineering today is investing in our future sustainability in untold albeit critically important ways.
For more information, visit https://www1.nationalgridus.com/Massachusetts-MA-RES. Arthur W. Hamlin is the director of Economic Development & Corporate Citizenship, at National Grid.