Last week, I asked some middle school students a fairly simple question: “Do you like math?”
About 350 sixth and eighth graders had come from nearby schools to the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) for an event Siemens had organized.
We wanted them to meet Ashley Kimbel, a 17-year-old Grissom High School student who used our software to build a lightweight prosthetic foot for a local U.S. Marine Corps veteran injured in Afghanistan in 2012. (Since our event, Ashley has shared her story with an even larger audience. She and Kendall Bane, the Marine she designed the prosthesis for, were both featured on the “Today” show this morning.)
But first I wanted to ask the room full of middle schoolers from “Rocket City” about math.
I wanted them to see how achieving what Ashley did starts with a strong foundation in math and science. I wanted to show them the very real connection between what they are learning in the classroom and the technology in their lives.
For Ashley, that technology was Solid Edge software, which Siemens granted to Grissom High as part of a program to make this tool available to every student and educational institution in the United States at no cost. Ashley was already familiar with the software from her involvement in the school’s electric race car design team. But she recognized how it could be used for a much different purpose. With the help of her teacher Chris Faust, she took what she knew about engineering and the tools of this software program to help Kendall. The lighter, more flexible prosthetic foot that Ashley created enables Kendall to enjoy his favorite outdoor activities, like mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and snowboarding, in a way that his other prosthesis could not. As Ashley told the students, “When you love doing a project, you have fun doing it.
Ashley’s story headlined our event at UAH, which coincided with “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” and “Engineers Week.” But the students there had other reasons to be inspired. They also heard from Angelia Walker, whose impressive career at NASA exemplifies how STEM skills can make a lasting difference in the world. And they got some advice from Del Costy, who oversees the Siemens software group that developed Solid Edge, about where their careers in innovation might start.
It was encouraging to see so much enthusiasm in the room, particularly when Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle announced that February 21 would be “Ashley Kimbel Day.” And this enthusiasm only reaffirms why the potential for these students to improve the world is unstoppable.
Just think of the advantages that today’s middle school students have that previous generations, like mine, didn’t. They are growing up at a time when it’s common for computers to be in schools and in homes (computers, by the way, that are far more powerful than the systems NASA used to put Americans on the moon). Students today have all sorts of technology at their fingertips, in addition to inspiring teachers in the classroom.
I had a different advantage. My parents were math professors and ignited my interest in the subject every day. They inspired me to explore all the places math could take me.
And I’m grateful because it opened the door for me to join a software development team after college. That’s where I saw how my math skills and technology could help solve real-world problems. Now, at Siemens, I get to see technology being used in essential and innovative ways: to keep power on despite the most extreme weather, to build some of our nation’s cleanest trains, to help factories create things they never thought possible, and to help doctors improve disease detection.
I get to see how it empowers a high school student to help a local veteran.
There will be other stories that follow Ashley’s, and I can’t wait to hear them. Math and science’s ability to help people reach their dreams is truly universal. Anyone who commits to this journey is putting themselves on a path to doing big things.
And I have a feeling some middle schoolers in Huntsville are already on their way.