PUBLISHER'S NOTEBOOK: Other side of Mayo shows why STEM education so important
Tuesday, November 27, 2012 3:53 AM
We all know Mayo Clinic is a great resource for our area - providing topnotch medical care and quality jobs in the health field. However, the facility has so much more, bringing in a lot of brainpower to the area as the support for medical services requires highly technical knowledge.
Recently, I tagged along with a school group that was touring the engineering division of the clinic. We weren't near patients or medical staff directly treating patients, yet the work was complex and highly technical, showing why STEM - or science, technology, engineering and math - education is so important to the future of work.
Our first stop was in a research lab. The research had a medical basis as it was studying fruit flies to determine what works best in treating a certain disease. That is something to be expected at a large medical institution.
However, the reason for the stop was to show how the engineering division had aided in the research by designing equipment to automate the steps, making them easier and more consistent for analysis.
Mayo Clinic is big on teams and the team came together to set up a research process using seemingly simple equipment that was modified to vastly improve the quantity and quality of the outcomes.
The heart of the engineering operation is in the lower levels of one of the buildings where some of the tools look like items that would be in any ordinary office or even a common industrial machine shop, yet the work is extraordinary. Although the people in these units don't see patients, their focus is on improving the experiences patients have while visiting the clinic.
Computer programmers write code for complex software models, scientists with advanced degrees study 3D models of blood flow to find how aneurisms behave, engineers modify standard equipment for telemedicine so that a doctor can hear the sounds of a stethoscope on a patient thousands of miles away and a glass blower, using art and science, forms specialized tubes for medical use.
One of the more interesting areas - and a glimpse of the future for blue collar jobs in America - is the one that appears much like a small industrial machine shop.
The tools are much the same as any used in a factory setting. The difference is that Mayo Clinic focuses on creativity and quality rather than speed and quantity.
Their colleagues come to them in search of solutions to a problem or need that often is unique to the clinic. For example, they invented a tool out of standard industrial parts for doctors to use to steady hip joints in hip replacement surgery.
As Steven Jurrens ran through all the things they do in this industrial setting, it was apparent that a person fresh off the streets couldn't run the industrial equipment in the way that is needed to assist the medical teams at Mayo Clinic.
Not only has he mastered the industrial equipment installed in his department, but he also understands computer programs, such as ones used to show drawings in 3D, as well as seemingly minor intricacies such as the proper fonts used for Mayo Clinic signage.
In my mind, though, the beauty is that he took that knowledge and used it to think on his feet - to come up with one-of-a-kind solutions to problems unique to Mayo Clinic.
That what were traditionally thought of as blue collar jobs have now become thinking jobs isn't happening just at places like the Mayo Clinic.
A recent national newspaper column by Thomas Friedman profiled Traci Tapani, who is co-president with her sister of Wyoming Machine, a sheet metal company in Stacy, Minn., that they inherited from their father 19 years ago. She had difficulty finding qualified welders for her company three years ago when it got a contract to armor Humvees.
She told Friedman that many years ago, people learned to weld in a high school shop class or in a family business or on the farm, and they came up through the ranks and capped out at a certain skill level. They did not know the science behind welding so could not meet the new standards of the U.S. military and aerospace industry.
Although they could make beautiful welds, she told Friedman, they didn't understand the metallurgy, modern cleaning and brushing techniques, and how different metals and gases, pressures and temperature had to be combined.
Unlike a Chinese firm that does high-volume, low-tech jobs, she continued, they do a lot of low-volume, high-tech jobs, each one having its own design drawings. That means a welder has to be able to read and understand five different design drawings in a single day, she explained.
Welding in a factory can provide a good living, but Tapani told Friedman "you have to have science and math. I can't think of any job in my sheet metal fabrication company where math is not important. If you work in a manufacturing facility, you use math every day; you need to compute angles and understand what happens to a piece of metal when it's bent to a certain angle."
That's why STEM education in our high schools is so important today. It isn't just for future engineers or doctors. Students who drift through school without learning science and math will find that the jobs they are suited for have all been shipped to China.
The future for what were once considered blue collar jobs in the United States is going to take intelligence, creativity and specialized knowledge.
Although most of us will visit Mayo Clinic at some time in our lives to receive its quality medical care, let's hope our youth get a chance to make a visit to the other side of the clinic. They will see a future of work that is interesting, challenging and, from the reactions of those we saw on the tour, very fulfilling.
However, it could also be scary to a young person that isn't prepared because he or she may find no spot in the workplace of the future.