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Roberto Ballarini, Ph.D., believes it’s critical to pique students’ interest in an engineering career. Ballarini, who is chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Houston, often visits K-12 schools to talk to students about engineering, but he also turns down several speaking requests because the travel demands are too high.

Then, he was introduced to an online platform called Nepris (www.nepris.com) that connects students all over the country with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals through live video conferences — and he realized that it quite nicely solves the challenges of scale and logistics in speaking with students.

“What was attractive to me about Nepris was that I could talk with students in real time, and be able to see them and answer their questions, without having to travel back and forth to the school,” he said. “It gives me a much broader reach than I would have otherwise.”

Inspiring students to think about careers in engineering is an important goal of professional organizations such as the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The demand for civil engineers is expected to grow 20 percent by 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and ASCE is hoping to show students that engineering can be an exciting profession with many possibilities.

For instance, during Engineers Week in February, the organization released the IMAX film Dream Big: Engineering Our World, which shows how engineers play an integral role in shaping the world of tomorrow. And some ASCE members — like Ballarini, who is an ASCE Fellow — have been using Nepris to achieve the same goal.

Nepris was co-founded by Sabari Raja, who studied electrical engineering in India and computer science at Louisiana State University, then worked at Texas Instruments for 15 years designing and building educational technology products.

“In talking with workforce development experts, it became clear that we’re facing a crisis,” she said. “Only one-third of the high-tech jobs in the United States will actually be filled by U.S. workers. And of the 4 million U.S. students who start the ninth grade, fewer than 4 percent are qualified to fill STEM-related jobs when they finish their education.”

Nepris aims to change that by making it extremely easy for engineers and other STEM professionals to interact directly with students, so they can talk about what they do and spark interest in STEM careers. The platform’s goal, Raja said, is to make industry engagement “part of the everyday curriculum — and not something that happens only once or twice a year during career day.”

In a Nepris session with Texas high school students, Roberto Ballarini, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Houston and former head of the civil engineering department at the University of Minnesota, described how he and a team of students helped investigate the 2007 collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis.

Introducing students to new possibilities

Connecting students with industry professionals serves two key purposes: It introduces students to career possibilities they might never have considered before, and it helps them answer the age-old question, “Why do we need to learn this?”

Research suggests the No. 1 reason students opt out of STEM-related courses as they continue their education is because they don’t see the relevance of what they’re learning, Raja said. “There is a huge gap between what is happening in the classroom and in the real world,” she said. Nepris helps to close that gap by showing students how the concepts they are studying in the classroom apply outside of school.

Nepris matches teachers and students with the right industry experts to meet their needs. Engineers and other STEM professionals can sign up to take part in the service free of charge, and all they need to connect with students is a computer with a webcam and internet access.

When teachers request someone to talk to their class about a particular topic, Nepris suggests a speaker with the appropriate expertise. The company also helps schedule the event, hosts the video conference, and archives the video for other classes to watch in the future.

“We make the process so simple that teachers have no excuses not to do this regularly in their classroom,” Raja said.

Nepris can help engineering firms expand their educational outreach programs by allowing employees to connect with classrooms without leaving the office. Companies can schedule informational sessions and invite teachers from all over the country to participate, removing geographical barriers and broadening their reach significantly. Nepris helps companies track every minute of their employees’ engagement in the classroom and measure how many students they are reaching, with detailed reports that give leadership teams better insight into the impact of their outreach programs.

The service also can help engage young girls and children of color in the STEM fields, Raja believes, by showing students from these traditionally underrepresented populations that STEM professionals can look just like them — leading to a more diverse workforce.

“I grew up in rural India, where my parents own a coconut farm,” she said. “It was only in my high school years at a private boarding school that I was exposed to women who were running companies, who were successful entrepreneurs — and that was far away from my hometown. Until students see these kinds of role models, they don’t really know what’s possible in their own lives.”

Students participate in a session on Nepris.

How students, teachers, and engineers all benefit

When Ballarini first learned about Nepris, he immediately saw the benefits went well beyond getting students excited about becoming engineers. “Yes, we would like to attract more people into civil engineering because it’s a very important area,” he said. Then he cited ASCE’s most recent report card giving the nation’s infrastructure a grade of D+. “The infrastructure is collapsing. We have to reach out to young people and show them that you can’t live your life comfortably if you don’t have a strong infrastructure — and that’s what civil engineers provide.”

Shortly after signing up with Nepris, Ballarini was asked to talk with students in a Texas high school about the differences between architecture and structural engineering. During a 45-minute session online — which he was able to participate in right from his own office, during a break in his teaching schedule — he explained how architects design what a structure will look like and what materials it will be made of, while structural engineers put the architect’s vision into practice by making sure the building will be stable.

He also told the story of how, while he was head of the civil engineering department at the University of Minnesota, he and a team of students helped investigate the 2007 collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis that killed 13 people. With the help of Ballarini and his team, investigators concluded that the gusset plates used in the bridge’s construction were too thin to support its load.

When his presentation was over, Ballarini answered the students’ questions. “I have found that students in general don’t know much about engineering,” he said. “Aside from what students see on TV or perhaps read on their own, they don’t really know what engineers do.”

It’s not only the students who benefit from Nepris, he noted: Because few K-12 schools have engineers on their faculty, many teachers are learning more about what engineers do as they connect their students with professionals in the field.

Making engineering seem more accessible

Lillian Wilson, the teacher who invited Ballarini to speak with her students, is an exception. She holds a degree in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M University, and she worked in the Shell Oil refining plant in Deer Park, Texas, for five years before becoming a teacher.

Even with her engineering credentials, she finds that hearing from experts in the field has far greater weight than hearing her stories.

“Regardless of the fact that I have an engineering background, and I do have some industry experience, I’m still a teacher. I lose credibility for that reason,” she said. When she brings an outside expert into her classroom, whether in person or online, her students tend to listen more intently and ask more questions.

Wilson teaches in the pre-engineering program at a career high school, and so her students have already expressed interest in an engineering career. She has her civil engineering and architecture students design a house for the Habitat for Humanity program during the fall semester, and in the spring they take part in Houston’s Michael G. Meyers Design Competition. In addition to arranging conferences like the one with Ballarini, she has used Nepris to connect her students with professional engineers to critique their designs.

“Some of my students have parents who never went to college,” she said. “This platform lets them see how engineers work and ask specific questions about what they do. It takes a little bit of the mystique away and makes engineering seem more attainable for them.” It also allows students to practice having conversations with professionals, she said, which is an important career skill.

Engaging with students early on

Structural engineer Jacob Bice is another frequent Nepris user. He is the principal engineer and managing director of Walter P. Moore and Associates’ Diagnostics Group, which specializes in structural repairs and renovations. Bice has given several presentations to students through the Nepris platform — most recently, talking with students in Oregon about how engineers design earthquake-resistant structures.

“I met Ms. Raja at a Chamber of Commerce event in Dallas,” he said. “She has a real passion for education. She told me about Nepris, and I have two school-age daughters myself. I enjoy speaking to kids about engineering. So when she explained to me what the platform was, I was excited to help out.”

Engineering is a calling, Bice said, but if students aren’t aware of the kinds of jobs that exist, then the profession will not be on their radar.

“I think it’s important to show kids that this is an interesting and challenging field, and it’s a rewarding field,” he said. “By engaging with kids early on in their education, we’re planting those seeds. And for students who show an interest in engineering, it helps them chart a course for themselves through school.”

Using Nepris to connect with students is so simple, he said, observing, “There is usually a staff member on the line to iron out any technical difficulties. Nepris makes it very easy for engineers to give a little bit back.”

Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer with 20 years of experience covering education and technology. Follow him on Twitter: @denniswpierce. Learn more about Nepris or sign up to speak with classrooms at www.nepris.com.