Students use math, physics to build potato guns

Tyler Jewell, a Dixie Tech student, fires his potato cannon.

Engineering isn’t for couch potatoes at Dixie Applied Technology College in St. George, Utah. Students demonstrate their grasp of “fluid power” by building potato guns and seeing who can shoot a spud the farthest, reports AP.

The Industrial and Facilities Maintenance students are studying hydraulic, pneumatic, pump and valve system science. The potato gun — or bazooka or cannon — competition has been an annual tradition for three years now said Vic Hocket, Dixie Tech’s president.

Amid cheers from the small crowd gathered to watch, the competitors aimed for a line about 100 yards down the tarmac. A spotter measured the distance each potato flew.

“Everyone’s seen the combustion-style potato gun,” Hockett said. “With this competition, there’s zero combustion. It’s all air powered. The idea is to create a vessel to hold enough air pressure and air volume to propel a potato when the air is dumped.”

Jason Ray, a former long-haul truck driver, is training for a new career in industrial maintenance. He built a metal tube gun, which he held over his shoulder like a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

“This is a coaxial design where the barrel is inside the reservoir,” Ray said. “It uses a composite piston, so when you charge it with air, the incoming air pressure forces the piston against the barrel and it seals it. And then when I press the on-off switch it activates the solenoid sprinkler valves, dumping all the air pressure that’s behind the piston. And the air pressure that’s in the reservoir forces the piston back.”

Dustin Lang put his employment at local salad dressing maker Litehouse Foods to use by utilizing stainless steel tubing and a fast-acting gate valve for his ground-mounted launcher.

“We went through all the mathematical scenarios of how long the barrel has to be, with how many psi and what the barrel diameter (should be),” Lang said.

Students have to master “some pretty elaborate concepts,” said Steve Carwell, who directs the operations management program.

‘College premium’ is exaggerated

The “college premium” has been exaggerated by high-profile studies, write Andrew G. Biggs and Abigail Haddad in The Atlantic. So has the payoff for majoring in a STEM field.

Smarter people are more likely to earn a college degree and to major in engineering, science and math, they write.

Only 58 percent of new college students who began in 2004 had graduated six years later, according to federal data. “Dropout rates are even higher at less selective colleges, whose students are presumably most on the margin between attending college following high school and entering the workforce.”

Calculating returns to education only for those who attend college and graduate is like measuring stock returns for Google while ignoring those for General Motors.

High school students who go on to college are quite different from those go directly to the workforce, they write.

(The collegebound) took a more rigorous high school curriculum, scored better on tests of reading and math, came from higher-income families, were in better physical and mental health, and were less likely to have been arrested. These are all correlated with higher earnings regardless of whether a person attends college . . .

Controlling for “both the risk of not graduating from college and differing personal characteristics” cuts the “earnings boost attributable to college attendance” in half, write Biggs and Haddad.

Graduates in technical fields earn significantly more than graduates in “softer” majors, studies have shown. “High school graduates aiming for high-earning majors such as engineering enter college with higher average SAT scores, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, while those aiming for lower-paying majors have lower average SAT scores,” write Biggs and Haddad. “High-paying jobs also entail longer work hours.”

Majors matter

Should you major in drama, anthropology, nursing or mechanical engineering? Majors matter when it comes to earnings and employment, reports the Bay Area News Group. With a bachelor’s in drama, a recent graduate can expect to earn $25,000 a year. Anthropology majors average $27,000 with 12.6 percent unemployment. Nursing graduates start at $48,000, while mechanical engineers can expect to earn $57,000 just out of college.

With experience, pharmaceutical and engineering majors nearly triple the salaries of arts majors.

Where the money is — and isn’t

NPR charts The Most (And Least) Lucrative College Majors.

Erin Ford graduated from the University of Texas two years ago with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering. Recruiters came to campus to woo her. She got a paid summer internship, which turned into a full-time job after she graduated. Now, at age 24, she makes $110,000 a year.

Michael Gardner just graduated from City College in New York with a degree in psychology. He applied for more than 100 jobs, had trouble getting interviews and worked at Home Depot to make ends meet. “Every single day while I was at work, I’m thinking, ‘I just hope I really don’t get stuck.’ ” Gardner just got a job earning $36,000 a year as a case worker — and he feels lucky to have it.

There are no surprises in the high-earnings chart. On the low side, a health/medical prep degree doesn’t pay well because it requires graduate work.

Income by major

Higher ed pays — for technical grads

Higher Education Pays: But a Lot More for Some Graduates Than for Others concludes a Lumina-funded report by Dr. Mark Schneider, the president of College Measures. “What you study matters more than where you study,” says Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research (AIR).  Learning technical and occupational skills pays off, even for graduates of low-prestige colleges and universities. A music, photography or creative writing graduate from a prestige university will struggle.

Schneider analyzed first-year earnings of graduates of two-year and four-year colleges in Arkansas, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

Some short-term credentials, including occupational associate’s degrees and certificates, are worth as much or more than bachelor’s degrees, the study found. For example, Texans with technical associate’s degrees averaged more than $11,000 more than four-year graduates in their first year in the workforce.

Certificates that require one or two years of study may raise earnings as much as an associate degree, especially a transfer-oriented degree.

In Texas, certificate holders earned almost $15,000 more on average than graduates with academic associate’s degrees, but about $15,000 less than graduates with technical associate’s degrees.

Not surprisingly engineering degrees have the biggest payoff, followed by nursing and other health-related fields. What is a surprise is the weak demand for biology and chemistry graduates. “The S in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is oversold,” the report found.

Despite the clamoring for more students to focus on STEM, the labor market shows less demand for science skills. Employers are paying more, often far more, for graduates with degrees in technology, engineering and math. There is no evidence that Biology or Chemistry majors earn a premium wage, compared with engineers, computer/information science or math majors. The labor market returns for science are similar to those of the liberal arts, like English Language and Literature.

Women now make up a majority of biology graduates and about half of chemistry majors.

“Prospective students need sound information about where their educational choices are likely to lead” before they go into debt, the report concludes.

Hands-on engineering at STEM camp

At Foothill College‘s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) summer camps, young engineering instructors don’t use books, lectures or lab exercises. The hands-on engineering curriculum lets high schoolers fly remote-control hovercraft, build robots and strap in for helicopter simulations, all in the name of science education, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

“In high school, they get a prescribed lab, they don’t really get to be creative,” said Peter Murray, the dean of physical sciences, mathematics and engineering at Foothill. “Here, we give them a whole bunch of parts and a plan, but we don’t tell them how to do it.”

The STEM summer camps are designed to attract groups that are underrepresented in science and engineering, such as women, minorities and low-income students. About half the students are female. Because the weeklong programs are free, students of all backgrounds can participate. 

In a robotics session, students were challenged to build and program a robot that could travel by itself through a cardboard maze. On the first day of camp, most robots just sat at the entrance of the maze, ramming helplessly into walls or spinning uncontrollably.

“At first it was hard because we were trying to figure it out; we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Sonia Romo, of Santa Clara, a camper at the STEM summer camps and an engineering novice.

Romo’s robot, dubbed Mr. Whiskers, made it through the maze once, but failed in a second try. The team had to “go back to the drawing board, think of all the possible bugs in the code, try a fix and test, test, test.” Mr. Whiskers made it through the maze three times by the end of the week. It “feels really good,” Romo said.

Not all degrees are created equal

For today’s college graduates, “what you make depends on what you take,” advises Hard Times 2013, a new report by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. “Not all degrees are created equal.”

Overall, 7.9 percent of recent college graduates are out of work, but jobless rates are lower in health care, education, business and engineering fields, higher in non-technical majors such as the arts (9.8%) or law and public policy (9.2%).

• Even as the housing bubble seems to be dissipating, unemployment rates for recent architecture graduates have remained high (12.8%).

• People who make technology are still better off than people who use technology. Unemployment rates for recent graduates in information systems, concentrated in clerical functions, is high (14.7%) compared with mathematics (5.9%) and computer science (8.7%).

Median earnings among recent college graduates range from $54,000 for engineering majors to $30,000 for graduates who majored in the arts, psychology and social work.

Technical certificates, degrees pay off in Texas

Texans who earn a vocational certificate often earn more than associate-degree graduates in their first year in the workforce, concludes Higher Education Pays: The Initial Earnings of Graduates of Texas Public Colleges and Universities Who Are Working in Texas. Some workers with certificates earn more than $70,000 – $30,000 more than the median for graduates with bachelor’s degrees, concludes the Lumina-funded study by College Measures, a joint venture of the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and the Matrix Knowledge Group.

The median starting pay for criminal justice/police science certificate holders is $48,192, double the compared with $24,298 for those with an academic associate’s degree. Some health-care certificates allowed graduates to earn $70,000. Other high-paying certificates included:  construction engineering technology/technician, electrician, pipefitting,  engineering, industrial technology, and instrumentation technician.

However, not all certificates lead to high-paying jobs. Recipients of two dozen certificate programs earned less than $13,000 in their first year on the job. Cosmetologists and  nursing/patient care assistants usually earned low wages.

Technical associate’s degrees pay well: The median starting salary is more than $50,000. By contrast, an academic associate degree lead to median earnings of $24,298,

First-year earnings for bachelor’s degree holders range from about $25,000 (biology) to about $47,000 (accounting): The average is $39,725.

Community college graduates’ first-year salaries vary from one college to another.

 Academic associate’s degrees range from about $10,000 (Ranger College) to more than $30,000 for graduates from the Trinity Campus of Tarrant County Junior College and from Central Texas Community College.

For graduates with technical degrees, the range is even greater, from about $20,000 for graduates of Clarendon College to more than $65,000 for graduates from seven community colleges: College of the Mainland Community College District, San Jacinto College South Campus, Tarrant County Junior College South Campus, Galveston College, El Centro College, Trinity Valley Community College and Weatherford College.

national study and analyses in Tennessee and Virginia have found similar results:  Technical certificates and associate degrees often pay better than non-technical bachelor’s degrees at the start of graduates’ careers.

‘Flipped’ engineering boosts pass rates

Flipping” and “blending” a San Jose State engineering class has worked so well that most California State University campuses are expected to partner with edX on similar courses in the fall, reports the San Jose Mercury News. San Jose State will expand the model to humanities, business and science courses.

Eighty randomly selected students in an entry-level engineering course watched online lectures from MIT (the flip), while solving problems in class, with the professor’s help (the blend).  Ninety-one percent of the flipped students passed the class. Only 55 and 59 percent of non-flipped students passed. .

“Five hundred years ago we gave them a textbook, and in 1862 we gave them chalk,” said Anant Agarwal, president of edX. “What tools have we given them since then? Please don’t say PowerPoint.”

In-class problem solving is more effective, said SJSU President Mo Qayoumi. However, the new format requires a lot more time from students and instructors.

The online videos and quizzes can take 10 to 12 hours a week to watch and complete, far more than expected in the traditional format. In addition, (Professor Khosrow) Ghadiri said he and his teaching assistants spend a combined 80 hours a week on the class, preparing materials, checking students’ progress and sending them emails when they fall behind.

Students who put in the work have a very good shot of taking the class only once. And if the 91 percent pass rate holds, the engineering department won’t have to provide all those seats for two-timing students.

California’s community colleges and state universities are looking to online learning to shorten wait lists. The state Legislature is considering a bill to require public colleges and universities to accept online credits if students can’t get into conventional classes.

AEI: Studies exaggerate college payoff

Going to college and picking the right major will increase your earnings, but not as much as you think, write Andrew G. Biggs and Abigail Haddad of the American Enterprise Institute. Recent high-profile studies confuse correlation and causation, they argue. “Simply because two things tend to occur together — such as college attendance and higher incomes — does not necessarily mean that one causes the other.”

In a recent study, Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton Project conducted a seemingly simple cost-benefit analysis: While four years of college today can cost in excess of $100,000, a typical college graduate earns roughly $13,000 more per year than a high school graduate. They conclude that, despite rising tuition costs, the annual “return” to college education tops 16 percent, far exceeding investments such as stocks or bonds.

First, going to college isn’t the same as graduating from college, write Biggs and Haddad.  Only 58 percent of people began college in 2004 had graduated six years later.  Mediocre students — the sort who aren’t sure whether to go to college or find a job — do much worse.

Second, high school graduates who enroll in college are quite different from those who don’t.

High school students who go on to college took a more rigorous high school curriculum, scored better on tests of reading and math, came from higher-income families, were in better physical and mental health, and were less likely to have been arrested. These are all correlated with higher earnings regardless of whether a person attends college, either because they contribute directly to higher pay or because they proxy for other factors that do. How much a college education increases the incomes of those who attend is a different question than the simple difference in earnings between college grads and individuals with only a high school diploma.

Using the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth it is possible to control for these and other differences between college grads and the rest of us. Once you control for both the risk of not graduating from college and differing personal characteristics, the earnings boost attributable to college attendance is cut in half.

Studies on the best-paying college majors also are flawed, they write.  The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University reports that four-year graduates in engineering, mathematics or computer science have median earnings that top $70,000, while graduates in the arts, education or social work earn less than $47,000. The choice of major also “determines unemployment,” Georgetown advises.

However, engineering majors start out ahead of arts majors, Biggs and Haddad write.

. . . high school graduates aiming for high-earning majors such as engineering enter college with higher average SAT scores, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, while those aiming for lower-paying majors have lower average SAT scores. But  SAT scores almost certainly are correlated with higher incomes regardless of college major chosen. Similarly, high-paying jobs also entail longer work hours. Numerous studies . . . have found that controlling for SAT scores, hours worked and other factors explains most of the pay differences that initially appear to be driven by choice of college major.

Young people considering their futures need to remember that they’re not average. Individual characteristics — intelligence, work ethic, interests — will determine their future. Bill Gates dropped out of college and did OK. Are you Bill Gates? Nurses with associate degrees make good money. If you faint at the sight of blood, that’s not your best choice.