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Perspective: Smart living—The thinking, skills and research needed for S&T advances that enrich our everyday lives

As the sun peeks over the Great Smoky Mountains, soft music begins to play from the phone on Alyssa’s bedside table. She rolls over trying to ignore the alarm, but the music becomes more insistent. Her feet hit the floor, which has been warming automatically. The alarm shuts off and the shades rise, letting the morning light in. She heads to the shower, which is already spraying jets of warm water.

Perspective: Smart living—The thinking, skills and research needed for S&T advances that enrich our everyday lives

The coffee maker clicks on in the kitchen, filling two large insulated mugs, one each for Alyssa and her husband, Oliver, who has just returned from his morning run. In the kitchen, he asks the smart speaker for a news update. Oliver reads a list of items on the refrigerator screen before reaching in for a bowl of Swiss oatmeal and tells the smart speaker to add eggs to the shopping list. He hears Alyssa exit the bathroom, knowing that the shower’s water temperature is adjusting for him.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, scientific and technological (S&T) advances are happening all around us, bringing us modern conveniences, making our energy use more efficient, keeping us safe and, when necessary, even saving our lives.

“The ‘internet of things’ is bringing about a huge transformation in our society and culture,” said Don Johnson, Ph.D., ORAU workforce economist. The internet of things is the digital interconnection of computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, and objects.

“How do you prepare people for that transformation?” Johnson asked. “The occupations of the future are not going to be the same as those of the past.”

ORAU and the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) play vital roles in this transformation, from early science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to recruiting the best and brightest for research participation programs, to analyzing workforce trends and tracking the careers of these research participants.

Design thinking for students

The coming transformation undoubtedly begins with advancing STEM education. ORAU offers professional development workshops for educators—like popular sessions led by chemist and science educator Al Hazari, Ph.D., who is retired from the University of Tennessee—to equip them to teach their students the skills they need. ORAU also delivers hands-on educational experiences directly to K-12 students.

“We can’t just teach kids to memorize, like so many of us were taught, because the problems are changing and the jobs are changing. We have to teach kids to be problem solvers,” explained Jennifer Tyrell, ORAU section manager for K-12 education.

One method for teaching these skills is design thinking, a mindset and approach to learning that involves collaboration and problem solving. “Design thinking gives students a framework to attack a problem whether it’s a STEM problem, a personal life problem or, one day, a problem in their career,” Tyrell said.

“The driving force behind design thinking is empathy,” Tyrell continued. Students are solving a problem for a person. Students learn to build empathy for that person and learn what they actually need so they can build a solution that makes sense, instead of randomly coming up with something they think might work. ORAU sponsored a week-long STEM Camp for middle school students in Clinton City Schools last summer, where they used design thinking to turn cardboard, egg cartons and other resources into solutions for characters chosen from a card deck.

“We had a little girl who built a chair for a character who was an evil genius holding a cat. She put fuzzy cat fur on the chair because she felt like that’s what he would want on his chair,” Tyrell described. “That’s the idea behind design thinking. You start in third grade doing something like that so by the time they get to high school they can solve community problems.”

Learning problem-solving skills isn’t limited to education. Even old-school workers have to learn new skills to solve problems for their customers.

Everyone is learning new skills

“A lot of skills are now more preventive rather than reactive,” said Craig Layman, Ed.D., associate director for scientific assessment and workforce development. “Workers in the medical industry, even plumbers and electricians, have to learn new skills because of the growth of computerization and artificial intelligence.”

ORISE and ORAU annually recruit more than 9,000 undergraduate, graduate, recent bachelor’s and master’s graduates and postdoctoral students for research participation programs in U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories and other federal agency research facilities across the country. These are hands-on mentored research experiences, where participants works alongside scientists and engineers on projects critical to each agency’s mission. When they complete their appointments, participants have often produced published research, and their experience serves as a catalyst to the next step in their careers.

Most importantly, as many as 96 percent of research program participants at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) continue to work in STEM-related careers, according to a longitudinal study conducted by ORISE. Studies of other facilities and research programs see percentages in the high 80s to mid-90s.

“That’s the proof of our success,” Layman confirmed, adding that research participation programs are critical to shaping the nation’s scientific future.

“Our participants at DOE are doing research in areas like transportation, the electric grid, climate change, artificial intelligence, cyber security, autonomous quantum information (for the development of driverless vehicles), etc. Important areas that will make all of our lives better,” Layman added.

Research makes our lives better and safer

Research program participants at U.S. Food and Drug Administration facilities are working on issues like food security and the impact of agriculture on climate change. At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, participants are working on health issues like HIV/AIDS, flu prevention and foodborne illness prevention.

“Our participants aren’t just making our lives better, but safer,” said Leigh Ann Pennington, data analyst. “We don’t realize how many things are going on that we take for granted, like currency, for example. All of the holograms on our money—did you know ORNL had something to do with that?”

ORISE and ORAU administer research participation programs from beginning to end, including recruiting participants, assisting with travel, delivery of health insurance and other benefits, disbursement of paychecks and more. Not surprisingly, technology plays a major role in administering these programs.

“It takes 15 minutes to ‘onboard’ an applicant through Zintellect now, and it used to take much longer than that,” Pennington said. Zintellect is a proprietary secure online platform that allows prospective research program participants to apply for programs they are interested in pursuing, allows mentors to select from among applicants for openings, provides training for them, and allows recruiters to communicate with them, among other features.

While ORISE and ORAU offer similar capabilities, there are key distinctions. ORISE helps strengthen the U.S. federal STEM workforce by administering hands-on research participation programs for students, recent grads, postdocs and university faculty members, placing them at various research facilities and laboratories managed by DOE and more than a dozen other federal agencies. ORAU services are available to corporate entities in addition to the governmental research facilities they serve, and the positions they fill could be short-term or long-term appointments as well as direct-hire jobs.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, the ORAU team recruits participants who will transition into full-time jobs working in research, communications or administration.

“It’s the full cycle of workforce development,” said Michelle Goodson, section manager for workforce development. “The employers we work with are looking for applicants who have technical knowledge, as well as problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Those are must-haves in the current employment landscape.”

Virtual career fairs are another commonality shared by ORISE and ORAU. Through these online events, prospective applicants can meet with recruiters from ORISE and ORAU, get their resumes reviewed, meet potential mentors and interact with each other. They can also learn about research opportunities at national laboratories and other federal research facilities, and apply for them using Zintellect.

Where in-person career fairs can be stressful for prospective applicants, virtual career fairs are low key and can be attended from the comfort of the couch—which is where we find Alyssa again, in her smart home. Soft music plays on the smart speaker while she drinks coffee and chats with prospective applicants interested in joining her artificial intelligence research team. She’ll have her pick from among many students with great resumes.

She chats with a potential applicant about the great working relationship she had with her mentor, how she learned so much—from the history and practical guidance for working in the lab to gaining her knowledge about artificial intelligence—and how she hopes to replicate that experience with the students who will be selected to join her team.

As Alyssa chats, Oliver makes his way toward the garage. He slides behind the wheel of his hybrid vehicle, headed to school, where his eighth-grade students will develop prototypes for their solutions to halting the advance of invasive plant species in the national park.

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