Hoosier students learning high-tech skills as Indiana attempts to stop the “brain-drain”

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By Rick Ramirez and Ray Cortopassi

Remember those Bunsen burners in science class or the first time you built something in shop class?  Well, fast-forward to today, and our young Hoosier students are engineering careers in the exploding fields of technology and science. And it’s at a time when Indiana is ripe for attracting high-tech  jobs.

Movies like Transformers, Ironman and The Social Network help kids to understand there is an immense amount of math and science behind their video games and smart phones. That Hollywood magic isn’t as far from Hoosier classrooms as you might think.

Students at elementary and middle school levels are already building and programming robots.  They use Legos to build the shell and computer software to program it to make moves.
When they get to high school, the robots are bigger and much more advanced. Select students are enrolled in Project Lead the Way, a national program priming future leaders in the fields of bio-tech and engineering.

Kyle Frye, a junior on Center Grove High School’s robotics team, is already mapping out a plan for a high-tech career.

“I want to try to work for the military.  Either working on tanks or some sort of weaponry and pretty much do that for the rest of my life,” said Frye.

Mike Taylor, a Southport High School Engineering Teacher, is preparing young minds to reach the stars.

“They learn about aerospace engineering by launching rockets out behind the school, or designing little air foils and putting them in the wind-tunnel and seeing how they have lift and drag and how that all affects everything by building gliders,” Taylor explained.

If you think biomed education is just for college students, think again.  Through Project Lead the Way, high school freshmen are taking a page from the Ironman script and learning about robotic prosthetic devices and tools to treat patients.

“I took a class last year called principles of biomedical sciences.  It was really interesting and I liked it,” said Sydney Sievertson, a student at Hamilton Southeastern High School.

Earlier this year, NASA Astronaut David Wolf, an Indianapolis native, energized a group of Project Lead the Way students visiting IUPUI, with his experiences in the space program.

“It’s probably true, math and science are for nerds but they just happen to be for all of the rest of us also. And they see when we expose them for space
technology,” said an enthusiastic Wolf.

When these brilliant young minds get to high school, the stakes are high as college recruiters and big businesses take notice of the technical skills young Hoosiers put on display at regional and national competitions.

“From our perspective at IUPUI, it’s a great recruiting tool because we know the teachers, we can contact them if we want to go into classrooms to talk to students about attending IUPUI,” said Terri Talbert-Hatch, Assistant Dean of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI.

“We look for students who have a local address, who have graduated from a local high school. Because we know the importance or bringing our students and talent back home,” said Rolls Royce Recruiter Reginald McGregor.

But why would anyone stay here when they are being offered more money out of state?

Justin Moore, decided against out-of-state offers and landed a job as a Rolls Royce Installation Systems Engineer in Indianapolis. Moore did his homework, using Rose Hulman’s cost of living calculator and quickly figured out the economical benefits of staying put.

“We’re able to take those offers and put them in the calculator and figure how much money that is here or some frame of reference that we know and then we can really compare apples to apples how much you’re going to make in Indianapolis compared to Chicago compared to some place like Colorado. When you get that offer, the number looks huge but then you put that through the calculator, you find out that its either not that big or definitely not better that what you’re offered in Indiana.”

Moore says some of his friends that did move out west now realize their higher salaries aren’t adding up when it comes to the astronomical cost of living.  He said one friend is actually coming back to Indiana because of that.

According to BestPlaces.net, the cost of living for a college graduate earning $50,000 in Indianapolis would be 70 percent higher in Boston, 62 percent more in Los Angeles, and 28 percent greater in Chicago.

Financial misfortunes in other states is part of the reason why Indiana is in a better position to retain its own students, as it lands more and more high-tech jobs. In fact, companies from Illinois and Michigan are relocating here, where they can thrive in the nation’s 3rd fastest growing economy.

“We are seeing companies come here,” says Governor Mitch Daniels.  “The difference between Indiana, our costs are pro-business attitude, and their’s, Illinois being a great example as that gap continues to widen,” Governor Daniels explained.

But what about Indiana’s so-called brain-drain?

A recent study conducted by Walker Information says nearly three-quarters of Indiana Business Council members agree that top talent leaving the state is still a problem.

Even so, that hasn’t stopped companies from either expanding or relocating here.  In fact, the governor and business leaders believe the drain of Indiana’s students and workforce has slowed considerably over the past decade.

“There’s just no question that this has changed.  More people are moving into Indiana.  More young people than moving out.  That’s a big reversal from a few years ago.  We know we are in a brain-gain situation these days,” said Governor Daniels.

The Hoosier who invented voicemail in Boston has been back in Indiana since the mid 90s and says today’s top students don’t need to look outside the state for a great job.  Scott Jones, who founded and now runs search engine ChaCha, says more and more young Hoosiers earn high wages at growing companies like Exact Target and Interactive Intelligence.

“When we’ve always talked about a brain-drain, that’s starting to turn into a brain-retain,” said an excited Jones.  “We are actually keeping people right here in Indiana because there are really good opportunities. I won’t name names but one of our top investors, who is one of the top billionaires in the world, said, ‘You guys are fortunate to be headquartered in Indiana because you have loyalty. Because you don’t have employees who are out shopping for the next options or stock options at the next company.'”

That loyalty is certainly a result of the hard work done by local business leaders, educators and a proactive state government.

Like the brilliant Tony Stark in Ironman, brilliant young Hoosiers are retooling our state and the world is taking notice.

During the time FoX59 was producing this story, Project Lead the Way decided to move its headquarters from New York to Indianapolis as more and more Indiana schools utilize the program than any other state.  If your school does not participate in the program, kids can still plug into tech programs at various YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs.

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