In school, in jobs and in the community, students want to make a difference. That’s why so many are teaming up to use technology to solve real world problems.

Over 500 undergraduate students enrolled in Purdue University’s Engineering Projects in Community Service program (EPICS), are teaming up to design, build and solve engineering-based problems to benefit local communities and education organizations.

“Everyday we get up and we’re looking at how we can make the world a better place,” says William Oakes, professor of engineering education at Purdue University and director of EPICS.

Now in its 20th year, EPICS has become a model for other engineering and community service programs at 24 universities.

“We’re seeing STEM as being key into solving problems of the 21st century. We can’t solve them without STEM tech.”

“The results of our projects improve the quality of life in our community, both locally and globally,” says Oakes, noting some of the ways EPICS has helped. They’ve created software and educational apps for kids, as well as custom prosthetics. They’ve also helped Habitat for Humanity improve construction and energy efficiency locally and internationally.

In this transformative education, students learn problem solving skills; leadership; how to work together; and they develop a sense of accomplishment.

Finding meaning

“Generation Y really wants to have meaningful work,” says Daniel Nichols, president of Stem Jobs, a company and magazine whose goal “is to connect classrooms to careers.”

Nichols encourages students to “Do what you love,” while learning STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills.

He says by 2018, 74 percent of jobs will require STEM capability, which is having taken and passed certain STEM subjects; while 68 percent of jobs will require STEM proficiency, passing STEM coursework and having a STEM degree or certification.

“Get more students engaged in these subjects that drive the economy and will drive their careers in the future,” says Nichols, explaining students with STEM backgrounds typically earn more money than their peers without STEM skills.

A growing field

Combining STEM and community is appealing to women and minorities, two groups who typically haven’t studied STEM.

Still there aren’t enough educators to teach the tech.

“We’re seeing STEM as being key into solving problems of the 21st century,” says Talia Milgrom-Elcott, co-founder and executive director of 100Kin10, a group of over 200 partners working to support STEM educators and to train 100,000 STEM teachers by 2021.

Milgrom-Elcott envisions STEM students working on problems like drought, hunger and artificial intelligence: “We can’t solve them without STEM tech.”