By Andy Fraher, Xylem Inc.
I was always fascinated with science as a kid, and as I have grown older that curiosity has not waned. In fact, it has increased exponentially. On family outings, it’s usually the case that I’m pulling my granddaughter aside to describe to her the intricacies of a water or wastewater plant seen from the road or pointing out the sewage lift stations that dot the highway. This is a particular favorite of mine; it’s the equivalent of license plate spotting for the environmentally inclined.
My interest in science started at a very young age, and I remember fondly poring over the weather maps, trying to understand all the different weather phenomena that I was seeing. The fact that I grew up in New England — where the mantra was “wait five minutes, the weather will change” — provided me with more than enough input and variation for my interest. I continued to embrace science, math, and chemistry and received a degree in chemical engineering, which combined all of my interests under one discipline. I went on to spend 30-plus years in the water industry — where I now live, breathe, and drink the fruits of this industry’s labors, while helping the environment.
Working for Xylem, I was introduced to the Stockholm Junior Water Prize (SJWP), and I was extremely fortunate to be selected as one of the judges for the U.S. competition. Each state sends their best and brightest water scientists to the national competition to vie for the chance to represent the U.S. in the international competition held in Stockholm every year. The eventual winners are able to meet with Her Royal Highness Victoria, crown princess of Sweden, which is a thrilling culmination of their hard work. Last year’s U.S. winners, Ryan Thorpe and Rachel Chang, went on to win the international competition with an entry that was focused on rapidly and sensitively detecting and purifying contaminated water utilizing graphene biosensors and mobilizing specific enzymes. More information on their project is available on the Water Environment Federation’s website, www.wef.org.
Having been bitten by the science judging bug, I found myself seeking out new ways to help satisfy the need to understand the cool things that these emerging scientists were working on. I had the pleasure of being approached and selected to judge at the 2018 North Carolina Science and Engineering Fair, which was held at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) main campus on February 17, 2018. It should be mentioned that UNCC also has been the host of the National SJWP competition for the last two years as well as 2018, so I want to give my future alma mater a nod for supporting and driving science in the community. Presented with a choice to judge at any level, I opted for the high school teams. I was thrilled with the projects that I observed, and was further energized by the level of engagement and enthusiasm the students demonstrated. We were a little shorthanded at this level, so those of us in this category were afforded the opportunity to take on a few more entrants than would normally be the case. I have to confess, I spent way too much time talking to each of the teams, and by the time I was finished I was one of the last to return to the judge’s room.
As I have said before, it is critical that we begin engaging our future scientists at a very young age to get them started on this rewarding journey. At the N.C. Science Fair, I was amazed with the focus, determination, and maturity of the elementary school scientists. They were fun to watch as they quickly got to their projects once they were given the okay and began to rehearse their presentations. When I look at how this exposure and experience will benefit them greatly later in life, as they present to fellow academics or business colleagues, I am even more excited for them. In fact, a Smithsonian study — available at https://ssec.si.edu/stem-imperative — cited how 78 percent of high school graduates do not meet the college expectations for math, science, reading, or English courses, and those that do decide to pursue a career in the sciences will out-earn non-STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors by 12 to 30 percent. Despite those facts, approximately 2.4 million STEM jobs will go unfilled. So the opportunities for science-related careers are certainly there and waiting to be captured.
That being said, our future scientists need our support. That can come in any number of ways, including supporting your local and state-level STEM competitions. Whether through proctoring, mentoring, coaching, or judging, the support will contribute greatly to growing our base of future scientists. Maybe someday they will go on to win an international competition like the Stockholm Junior Water Prize and spend their life focusing on identifying new and innovative ways to solve the world’s water issues. And given that water is such a precious and often scarce commodity, it’s critical that we continue to find and support processes and technologies — as well as the next generation of scientists —that will help us protect these resources.
I encourage you to engage with and join this great effort!
Andy Fraher is the Director (Acting) of Marketing, Water Utilities, Xylem ACT, and a Board Member of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA), a non-profit trade association founded in 1908 to represent the interests of technology manufacturers and related industries. More information about WWEMA can be found at www.wwema.org
Image credit: "uncc-9968," Scott Ritchie © 2016, used under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/